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Brazil’s high court has played a key role in fighting corruption, and strengthening law and democracy. The rising chief justice has the chance to reinforce that legacy.

A chance encounter sometimes makes history.

Like when lawyer Ricardo Lewandowski’s mom invited his good childhood friend Laerte Demarchi to lunch in the early 1990s.

“I told her I already had plans, that I was meeting a union organizer at my dad’s restaurant,” Demarchi recalls. “She said to bring him over, too.”

And that’s how, at a backyard barbecue, Lewandowski met then-union-leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Over a decade later in 2006, Lula — President Lula — appointed Lewandowski to Brazil’s Supreme Court (STF), where, as senior member of the court, he’ll shortly take over as chief justice as his predecessor retires. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, Brazil’s STF is the final arbiter of constitutional cases, but it has another special role: to try cases of high-level political corruption. Of which Brazil’s seen plenty.

Criticism, misunderstandings — this is part of our work.

- Ricardo Lewandowski

And that’s where Lewandowski will meet his test. His wildly popular predecessor, Joaquim Barbosa, established the court as a crusading enforcer of honest government. And now Lewandowski finds himself pronounced guilty in the rabid, fluid court of public opinion, accused of enabling corruption by voting to acquit the faithful of Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT), whose leader appointed him to the court.

Resurrecting his name would boost Brazilian’s faith in their own laws and democratic process, even if it had no practical effect on his powers of office.

It’s an unexpected dilemma for Lewandowski, now 66. After his appointment to the STF, he built his reputation as a corruption fighter, as author of a decision forbidding nepotism among the three branches of government, leaving hundreds of expectant sons crestfallen. In 2010, he took over the presidency of the Federal Superior Electoral Tribunal and endorsed the Law of Ficha Limpa — the Clean Record Law, a popular measure that barred candidates convicted of certain offenses from elected office for eight years.

But these achievements were dwarfed by the scale of the payoff scandal, the mensalão, that reached the STF in 2012. Whistle blowers revealed $12,000 monthly payments to the ruling Worker’s Party members of Congress in exchange for supporting Party-favored legislation. While corruption no longer surprises Brazilians, the scale of the mensalão shocked the country. The 25 political leaders condemned by the proceedings included Lula’s former Chief of Staff and the ex-president of the Party, both now serving jail sentences. Widespread street protests in July of last year in part reflected public disgust over the scandal.

Brazil judge Joaquim Barbosa sitting with other judges surrounding him

Joaquim Barbosa is pictured during his inauguration as head of the Supreme Court.

Source: Getty

The proceedings turned Justice Barbosa into a sort of hero figure. For a year and a half, nightly news showed Brazil’s first black Chief Justice on his feet (due to a back problem), trembling as he railed against the sordid dealings of politicians, shaking his head in moral outrage. Brazilians felt they finally had a voice at the pinnacle of justice.

I’m sure that Brazil wants an independent judiciary.

- Ricardo Lewandowski

So when last August Barbosa turned his wrath on his colleague, raising his voice and seeming to accuse Lewandowski of partaking in chicana, Brazilian juridical slang for delaying proceedings in favor of the accused, Lewandowski found his reputation shredded.

“I expected it,” Lewandowski later said. “Criticism, misunderstandings — this is part of our work. But I’m sure that Brazil wants an independent judiciary … I think the judge must not fear the criticism, because the judge or judges vote with their conscience and according to the laws. It shouldn’t be guided by public opinion.”

Lewandowski’s a native of Rio de Janeiro, where his father founded a bicycle-making company. When business took off, he moved the family of six ­— a wife and four kids — onto a large country property on the then lightly populated outskirts of São Paulo. There Lewandowski enrolled in law school in the early 1970s. Demarchi remembers his tall friend, Ricardão — big Richard ­­— from those days.

“Our families were very close,” says Demarchi. “I remember we would be riding horses on the property, kicking the soccer ball around, just messing around like young guys in our early 20s, and Ricardão would be inside studying. That was his main hobby, I swear.”

After graduating law school, Lewandowski earned a master’s in international relations at Tufts, and then a Ph.D. in Brazil.

A recent Pew poll found corruption remains one of Brazilians’ primary concerns.

Some legal scholars say that Lewandowski’s public persona, as on the wrong side of justice, is flat wrong. “As Justice Lewandowski dissented often from Justice Barbosa’s opinion, they were depicted as antagonists. However, it is unfair to portray him as an anti-hero or as a defender of corruption as some Brazilian journalists did,” says Pedro Rubim Borges Fortes, Professor of Law at the research and graduate training institute, Fundação Getulio Vargas, in São Paulo.

While Barbosa criticized the mentality of Brazilian judges as “conservative, pro-status-quo and pro-impunity,” Lewandowski supporters say that Barbosa was just playing to public opinion.

“In the end [Lewandowski] goes by the criteria of justice,” says his old friend Demarchi. “He studies, and then he votes.”

A recent Pew poll found corruption remains one of Brazilians’ primary concerns, a worry that could find expression in presidential and gubernatorial elections set for October 5.

And meanwhile, the author of many of the laws that govern the voting process will get the chance to wage his own campaign, to establish his own legacy at the court.

Top Image Source: Corbis

Shannon Sims

Shannon Sims

Ozy Author

Based in Brazil, Shannon is Ozy's Latin American correspondent and legal voice. In her many lives, she's taught elementary school in Harlem, managed a hotel in Italy, and researched forests in Brazil. A University of Texas law grad raised in Louisiana, she prefers cowboy boots over heels, and hot sauce over everything.