From Poverty to Judiciary
Many times we have heard of people rising from abject poverty to affluence by sheer perseverance. The unassuming Joaquim Barbosa opted for something that’s not easily attainable—respect. Success has a lot of names and could come in different forms. It can be fortune, glamour, fame, recognition, and the list goes on and on. But what Joaquim has achieved is something far greater than success. He earned the respect of the whole nation. His rags to riches story only added glitter to his “success.”
For someone who everybody looks up to as their inspiration and icon, Joaquim neither has the looks of a dashing debonair nor is he obsessed in keeping his image impeccably immaculate. His colleagues complain about his harsh way of getting his message across. He’s not the type who would tolerate mediocrity and misbehavior at the very least. Joaquim doesn’t care who he is up against. Those who are in the wrong would find a scathing enemy in this no-nonsense judge.
As an Afro-Brazilian, Joaquim earned his law degree by working long hours as a janitor and typesetter. He came from a broken family but he never gave up his dream of becoming a lawyer in spite of the odds. Brilliance and hard work got him to where he is now. Ever since he was a young boy, he’s lived a hard life. This must be why he has relegated himself as the defender of justice and human rights of his fellow Brazilians in a corrupt-ridden country. In a nation bereft of political transparency, it is not only difficult to remain uncorrupted—it is impossible. People are so used to hearing about corruption that they have become desensitized. They elect politicians with questionable ethics in office not once but over and over again. Such was the state of Brazil, one of the world’s most corrupt countries.
This was the political milieu that Joaquim grew up in. But he did not let hopelessness keep him from doing his part in trying to change the country for the better. He endured poverty, discrimination, and biases. When he prevailed, he doesn’t bask in his glory. Instead, he used his influence and knowledge in making those responsible for their poverty and economic crisis pay for betraying the trust of the people.
Early Life and Education
Joaquim is the eldest among the children of a bricklayer and a housewife. He was born on 7 October 1954 in the small town of Paracatu in Minas Gerais state. His father barely earned enough to feed his family. Getting tired of their miserable life, his father took the easy way out and left all of them to the care of their mother.
As the eldest child, not to mention the eldest male in the family, the overwhelming responsibility of fending for their family rested on Joaquim’s young shoulders. Determined to change their circumstances in life, he turned to education. He attended Dom Serafim Gomes Jardim and State Public School Antonio Carlos when he was in elementary. At 16, he left for Brasilia to pursue his high school studies without the support of his single parent. Joaquim couldn’t expect more from his mother considering that she had seven more mouths to feed. To ease their burden, he went looking for a job and continued his secondary education by working as a janitor in the Brasilia court.
Little did the teenage Joaquim know that he is destined to lead the very halls he was cleaning. Although poor, Joaquim has a spirit of a warrior. Aside from being a janitor, he also worked at the local Correio Braziliense newspaper. He persevered until finally he completed his high school studies from the Elefante Branco, a public school in Brasilia. Normally, a black Brazilian would be contented with that. But not Joaquim—he wanted to achieve more. Following his high school graduation, he worked as a typesetter in the Graphic Centre in the Federal Senate from 1973 to 1976.
He spent another three years as the Chancellery Officer of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Embassy of Brazil in Helsinki, Finland—his first overseas experience from 1976 to 1979. He did all that while continuing his law degree. In 1979, he secured his law degree from the University of Brasília and was immediately hired by the Foreign Ministry.
For the next five years, he served as lawyer to the Federal Data Processing Service or SERPRO and left to become a federal prosecutor for the Brazilian Public Ministry in Brasilia in 1984. He was later on assigned in Rio de Janeiro. Joaquim spent nine years of his life as prosecutor for the Brazilian Public Ministry.
While being a prosecutor, he also became part of other public agencies such as the Ministry of Health where he was the Head of the Legal Advisory from 1985 to 1988. A natural achiever, Joaquim became a recipient of research grants from CNPq from 1988 to 1992. He spent those three years undergoing an extensive doctoral program which earned him three post graduate diplomas. Joaquim went to France to complete his doctorate degree from the DEA - Droit Public Interne-Pantheon-Assas University in France in 1993. Apart from his mother tongue, Portuguese, his travels also made Joaquim fluent in four other languages—English, French, German, and Italian.
Joaquim has dabbled into the academe. In fact, he became a visiting scholar at the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School and at the UCLA School of Law from 1999 to 2001. He was made a recipient of grants by the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Foundation, and CNPq. His career’s biggest break as a lawyer, however, was in 2003 when he was appointed by then-president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to the Supreme Court. The former president left a mark in history by doing so.
Discrimination in Brazil
Although most Brazilians identify themselves as Afro descents, the black population remains marginalized. Given their number, the black people are still regarded second class citizens. For instance, very few hold high political positions in the government. In the history of their Supreme Court, in particular, only two black judges preceded Joaquim—and they are of mixed race with skin color far lighter than that of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s appointee. So that makes Joaquim the first pure Afro-Brazilian to serve as judge in the highest court of the country.
Many years ago, Joaquim worked as a janitor in the halls and courtroom where he now hears cases. It was a breath of fresh air for the Afro-Brazilian people because they see someone of their color brushing elbows with white Brazilians. In retrospect, it was a turning point not only in Joaquim’s life but also in the lives of many aspiring Afro-Brazilians who are also dreaming of following in his footsteps. Three years later, he was appointed vice president of the Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (Superior Electoral Court). He served three years holding that position.
It is a custom in Brazil’s Supreme Court to hand the presidency to the Justice that held the longest tenure. Twice Joaquim had to pass up the opportunity because of a recurrent ailment called sacroiliitis. According to medical definitions, sacroiliitis is the inflammation of the sacroiliac joint, making it akin to arthritis. This condition makes sitting down for long hours uneasy for Joaquim as the pain in his back gets unbearable the longer he stays seated. But this doesn’t keep the judge out of the courtroom. More often, Joaquim is seen presiding cases standing up in order to alleviate the discomfort he feels.
The Mensalao Trial
In his tenure as judge in the Supreme Court, he has 8,460 actions under his responsibility. Joaquim is quite a workaholic. He became a household name when the Mensalao or Big Monthly Allowance in English scandal erupted. During the presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2005—a year before he ran for a second term—his Chief of Staff, José Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva, got embroiled in an embezzlement case. Both Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and José Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva belong to The Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party) and were considered the top leaders for founding the party together.
Word went around about the party’s involvement in bribes. In June 2005, Roberto Jefferson, an ally of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was said to be leading a well-orchestrated corruption scheme in Brazil’s Postal Office. When investigations ensued, Roberto squealed and told the public about the party’s vote-buying arrangement. He revealed that members of the congressional coalition were receiving 15,000 dollars of monthly allowance provided they guarantee supporting legislative bills processed in the government.
Belonging in the same party and working closely together, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was questioned as well as his Chief of Staff, José Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva. José Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva and around 25 of his cohorts faced charges ranging from money laundering and misuse of public funds, to active and passive corruption and formation of a criminal organization. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva issued a statement saying that he knew nothing about the ongoing bribery and red-tape existing in his government. The President was not implicated in the case and even managed to get the people’s trust back. He was re-elected in 2006.
In 2012, the case was tried and Joaquim, the very appointee of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, presided the case. Joaquim did not show any impartiality during the trial. If anything, he was his independent self all throughout. It did not matter that the person they are trying is an ally of the President who put him in power. It was a dazzling show. Asked if he considers Mensalao as one of the most important trials in the history of Brazil, Joaquim explained:
"The case is indeed the most important for Brazil because it involves high-ranking officials of the party in power. It’s the party of the most popular political man (Lula) in the country. The case is also important because it involves bankers, highly placed people in politics, in the economy and the administration. And add the fact that the trial is broadcast daily on TV. It’s about the law, but it’s also about politics." (Source: Bloomberg)
José Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva was sentenced to a 10-year imprisonment and a fine of 330,000 dollars for spending 35 million dollars of the government’s money in providing for legislators’ monthly allowance for them to support laws they initiated. The businessman behind the money laundering scheme was sentenced to 40 years of incarceration.
Because of his tough stance in corruption, Joaquim was dubbed by his people as the “Punisher.” He was also called “The Poor Boy Who Changed Brazil.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Supreme Federal Trial Court
- Federal Public Ministry
- Rio de Janeiro State University
- Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School
- UCLA School of Law
- Ford Foundation
- Institute of International Education - IIE
- CARE Brazil
- Global Justice
Awards and Achievements
- 1973-1976: Served as typesetter in the Graphic Centre in the Federal Senate
- 1976-1979: Served as Chancellery Officer of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Embassy of Brazil in Helsinki, Finland
- 1979: Studied Law at University of Brasília
- 1979: Hired by the Foreign Ministry
- 1979-1984: Served as lawyer to the Federal Data Processing Service - SERPRO
- 1984-2003: Became a federal prosecutor for the Brazilian Public Ministry in Brasilia and later in Rio de Janeiro
- 1985-1988: Served as Head of the Legal Advisory of the Ministry of Health
- 1988-1992: Underwent an extensive doctoral program which earned him three post graduate diplomas
- 1988-1992: Recipient of research grants from CNPq
- 1990: Completed his master's
- 1993: Completed his doctorate degree from DEA - Droit Public Interne -Pantheon-Assas University
- 1999-2000: Recipient of research grants from the Ford Foundation
- 1999-2001: Served as a visiting scholar at the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School
- 1999-2001: Served as a visiting scholar at the UCLA School of Law
- 2002-2003: Recipient of research grants from the Fulbright Foundation
- 2003: Appointed to the Supreme Court
- 2006: Became the Vice-president of the TSE
- 2006-2009: Served in the Superior Electoral Court
- 2012: Became Chief Justice of Brazil
- 2012: Presided over the country’s largest political-corruption trial
- 2012: Has 8,460 actions under his responsibility being processed by the Court
- 2013: Elected by Time magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world
- One of the 25 Brazilians to watch according to FT
- The first black president of Brazil’s Supreme Court
- A virtuoso violinist and pianist
- Learned four foreign languages
- Speaks 5 languages
- Member of the Federal Public Ministry
- Adjunct Professor at Rio de Janeiro State University
Time (The 2013 Time 100)
Wikipedia (Joaquim Barbosa)
The Huffington Post (Joaquim Barbosa Sworn In As Brazil's First Black Supreme Court Justice)
The Daily Beast (Joaquim Barbosa: Brazil’s Most Popular Supreme Court Justice)
Agencia Brasil (NEWS IN ENGLISH – Joaquim Barbosa finds nine mensalão defendants guilty of money laundering)
Violence Against Man (Minister Joaquim Barbosa, the son of a bricklayer who became a national figure in Brazil)
Al Jazeera (Brazil jails Lula's ex-aide for vote buying)
Reuters (Corruption trial makes black Brazilian judge a hero)
BBC (Barbosa made first black head of Brazil's Supreme Court)
Bloomberg (Judge’s Color Makes One Statement, Style Another)
Black America Web (Little Known Black History Fact: Joaquim Barbosa)
Pulsa Merica (Brazil: Dirceu Claims He Was Promised Leniency In Mensalao Trial)
Bloomberg Businessweek (First Black Court Chief Confronts Corruption in Brazil)
The Global Journal (Cleaning House In Brazil)
BBC (Will Brazil's 'Mensalao' corruption trial bring change?)
Inter Press Service (Winds of Racial Change in Brazil)
The Argentina Independent (Brazil: Joaquim Barbosa Becomes Supreme Court’s First Black President)
Southern Pulse (Joaquim Barbosa: Anti-corruption advocate installed as first Afro-Brazilian Supreme Court Presdent)
Supremo Tribunal Federal (Justice Joaquim Barbosa takes office as president of the STF)