Supreme Court Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa, who with an iron hand presided over a well-known corruption trial that resulted in important politicians going to jail, will step down from the bench this year, Brazil's Senate leader said Thursday.
He came to say goodbye, given that he will retire next month, Renan Calheiros told reporters after a private meeting with the jurist. It was a surprise and we're very sorry, since he's one of the best models the country has, the senator added.
The chief justice met earlier Thursday with President Dilma Rousseff to inform her of his decision.
Barbosa, 59, was the first black jurist to head Brazil's Supreme Court, elected by his 10 fellow justices in October 2012.
He earned unprecedented renown among Brazilians for his inflexible character during the so-called trial of the century or 'Mensalao' centering on a 2005 corruption scandal that rocked the administration of then-President Lula da Silva.
Twenty-five of the 37 defendants were found guilty, in large measure due to the extensive work done by Barbosa, who handed down very harsh sentences to those convicted, including Lula da Silva's one-time presidential chief of staff, Jose Dirceu.
Also convicted and sentenced to prison was Jose Genoino, a former chairman of Lula da Silva and Rousseff's center-left Workers Party.
The trial garnered Barbosa enormous popularity in a country where it is often said that corruption is never punished and it made the majority of Brazilians see him as a champion in the struggle to clean up public management.
Announcing his retirement, Barbosa told the court in Brasilia: I was fortunate and privileged to be a member of this court in the its most prolific, its most important moment in the history of our country.
Brazilians took to the streets to protest in Brasilia last year against an attempt to grant the politicians convicted a retrial.
However, it also made him the target for Lula da Silva's continuous criticism, since the former president felt that the trial was 80 percent political and just 20 percent legal.
Several opposition parties toyed with the idea of proposing Barbosa for a Senate candidacy or even the presidency in the October elections, but he has always denied having politics as part of his near-term plans.
However, he said last year that he would not rule out running for office in 2018.
Judge Joaquim Barbosa was born into a poor family in the remote town of Paracatu in the state of Minas Gerais. He was educated in Brazil's much criticized state school system. He later moved to the capital, Brasilia, where he studied for a law degree at the city's best university.
To support himself through university, he worked as a typist and a cleaner in one of the city's courts, and later began a successful career as a public prosecutor.
In 2003, he became a household name when he was appointed by President Lula da Silva to the Supreme Court. Black people rarely achieve high office in Brazil, despite the country having the world's largest black population after Nigeria.