Joaquim Barbosa: Brazil’s Most Popular Supreme Court Justice

Illustration by Emily Flake

If there is one thing Brazilians take seriously, it’s carnival. So it’s telling that some of the hottest items at street fairs in Rio de Janeiro these days aren’t just bootleg Justin Bieber DVDs but carnival masks of Joaquim Barbosa, the country’s first black Supreme Court justice. Known for his legal rigor, fierce independence, and regular clashes with his fellow justices, Barbosa, 58, doesn’t smile easily. But when he addresses the court, Brazilians listen—and like what they hear.

Barbosa is presiding over a historic corruption trial and deciding the fate of some of the country’s most powerful politicians. Known as the mensalão, or the big monthly payoff, the case broke in 2005, when a midlevel bureaucrat was caught pocketing a bribe. The muck went much deeper, as prosecutors turned up what they say is a massive payola scheme at the heart of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration. Though Lula himself is not on trial, his legacy is. A majority of the 11-member high court has since convicted dozens of Lula’s closest former advisers of buying votes in Congress. And as the saga has unfolded, Barbosa has led the way.

That Barbosa is even hearing the case is the stuff of fables. The son of a bricklayer, he grew up in an adobe home in Paracatu, a backwater in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. His schoolmates remember him as an obstinate, self-absorbed boy who read everything he could get his hands on and liked to sing bits of songs in foreign languages. His break came when Barbosa’s family moved to Brasília, then the new national capital, where a dedicated student could rise to public service. Barbosa went to law school and joined the state’s attorney office. He went on to earn his doctorate at the Sorbonne and then lecture at Columbia University and UCLA. Besides his native Portuguese, Barbosa speaks fluent English, French, German, and Italian. Nominated to the bench in 2003, he will soon take over as the country’s chief justice.

Ironically, Barbosa owes his robe to Lula, who made it a point of honor to name a black man to the high court and may have expected gratitude. But Barbosa has no use for godfathers. He has meticulously structured the trial to show that the millions of dollars showered upon Lula’s congressional allies were not merely unreported loans to pay off campaign debts, but taxpayers’ money diverted to buy off legislators. Like Barbosa’s ascendance, the manner in which the mensalão has played out is a sign of how the country has changed. “We are a maturing democracy, with checks and balances and independent courts,” says Brazilian political scientist Carlos Pereira. “It’s hard to think of another country where the courts have imposed losses on a political elite that is still in power.” To Brazilians, long inured to seeing the high and mighty get away with murder, Barbosa is the right man at the right time.