Dias Toffoli: the head of Brazil’s Supreme Court in the spotlight

. Oct 31, 2019
Dias Toffoli: the head of Brazil's Supreme Court in the spotlight Chief Justice Dias Toffoli. Photo: Antonio Scorza

Upon leaving an event in São Paulo on Wednesday, José Antonio Dias Toffoli, Brazil’s Supreme Court chief justice, had his car surrounded by protesters. Dressed in green and yellow and chanting in support of President Jair Bolsonaro, they banged on the vehicle’s hood and unfurled a large banner which read: “The Hyenas of the Supreme Court.”

This was in reference to a video posted on the president’s official Twitter account on Monday, which consisted of a scene of an old lion being surrounded by snarling hyenas. Lifted directly from BBC Earth’s Dynasties nature documentary series, the video had been edited to depict Jair Bolsonaro as the weary feline, and the hyenas were given the face of a number of Brazilian political actors: the press, opposition parties, Jair Bolsonaro’s own party, and, crucially, the Supreme Court.

</p> <figure class="wp-block-embed-youtube wp-block-embed is-type-video is-provider-youtube wp-embed-aspect-16-9 wp-has-aspect-ratio"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> <span class="embed-youtube" style="text-align:center; display: block;"><iframe class='youtube-player' width='1200' height='675' src=';rel=1&#038;fs=1&#038;autohide=2&#038;showsearch=0&#038;showinfo=1&#038;iv_load_policy=1&#038;wmode=transparent' allowfullscreen='true' style='border:0;'></iframe></span> </div></figure> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro soon deleted the video, with suspicions that it had been posted without his consent, possibly by his son, Carlos Bolsonaro. Regardless, it shows just how fraught the relationship between the Executive and the Supreme Court has become, with the latter embodied by the figure of its Chief Justice, Justice Toffoli.</p> <p>Rarely has the country&#8217;s highest court taken on such a political role in Brazil as it has in recent years. And between now and the end of the year, Justice Toffoli, presiding over the tribunal, is one of the most powerful people in the country. Speaking during Wednesday&#8217;s protests, he appeared to be reveling in his role of importance. &#8220;It&#8217;s good that people know the Supreme Court exists, and that they know who the 11 justices are. Let them come and protest.&#8221;</p> <h2>From rookie to MVP</h2> <p>For a long time, Justice Toffoli led a quiet career working as a legal advisor for the presidential campaigns of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 1998, 2002, and 2006. His involvement with the Workers&#8217; Party led to his first big break when in 2007 Lula appointed him as Solicitor General.</p> <p>Being in the public eye meant that when Supreme Court Justice Carlos Alberto Menezes Direito died of a pancreatic tumor in 2009, Justice Toffoli suddenly found himself in line for a perpetual seat on Brazil&#8217;s highest court.</p> <p>At just 41 years old, he took the role with a tenure of 34 years, as Brazilian Supreme Court justices are put into forced retirement when they turn 75. He made himself at home, adopting a calm attitude toward debates, basing his work on the three pillars of &#8220;self-restraint, dialogue, and negotiation.&#8221;</p> <p>Alongside colleagues Gilmar Mendes and Ricardo Lewandowski, he made up the so-called &#8220;<a href="">Garden of Eden</a>,&#8221; a Supreme Court panel notorious for ruling in favor of defendants and undermining the Operation Car Wash corruption investigation.</p> <p>In a number of cases, the trio—who commanded the majority in the five-justice panel—ordered the release of a number of high-profile figures with corruption convictions, including former Workers&#8217; Party leader—and Justice Toffoli&#8217;s ex-boss—José Dirceu.</p> <p>In 2018, as a result of the Supreme Court&#8217;s rotative policy of appointing chief justices for two-year terms, Justice Toffoli became the <a href="">youngest-ever head of the tribunal</a> at the age of 50 years old.</p> <h2>Which way to sway?</h2> <p>With the impending presidential election and the questions raised about his Workers&#8217; Party past, there was much uncertainty about how he would behave politically, particularly after the election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.</p> <p>This was unfounded, however, as Justice Toffoli&#8217;s entire platform is based on consensus and relationships with important figures. He is constantly meeting with the president, cabinet ministers and the leaders of congressional houses. His inspiration to this end is former Chief Justice Nelson Jobim, who presided over the court between 2004 and 2006 by building alliances with all relevant powers.</p> <p>With the impending election of Jair Bolsonaro, Justice Toffoli didn&#8217;t go left, as some had suspected. If anything, he went right. Even before the vote, the newly appointed chief justice named Army General Fernando Azevedo e Silva as his advisor, who Mr. Bolsonaro later called up to be his Defense Minister.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="Rio de Janeiro, Brazil April 11, 2019 Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (C) pries during a evangelical ceremony in Rio de Janeiro celebrating the first government´s 100 days - Image" class="wp-image-26759" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>President hosts an evangelical ceremony in Rio de Janeiro celebrating his administration&#8217;s first 100 days. Photo: Antonio Scorza</figcaption></figure> <p>During a session to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Brazil&#8217;s Constitution, Justice Toffoli spoke of the military coup of 1964, referring to it as a &#8220;<a href="">movement</a>,&#8221; in a nod to the president to be.</p> <p>In the middle of this year, he went even further to please President Bolsonaro by issuing a ruling to suspend the use of information from money laundering enforcement authorities in criminal cases, without a court order. This was a request of the defense counsel of Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, who was facing a corruption investigation related to his time as a Rio de Janeiro state representative.</p> <h2>Crunch time for the Toffoli–Bolsonaro relationship</h2> <p>Despite all of these concessions, the often strained relationship between the Executive and Supreme Court is about to hit boiling point. In what has been called the &#8220;<a href="">Trial of the Year</a>,&#8221; the Supreme Court is currently deciding over whether to allow defendants to begin serving jail sentences before exhausting all of their appeals routes.</p> <p>The issue is dear to President Bolsonaro&#8217;s supporters, as if the court denies this possibility, it will see their &#8220;arch-nemesis,&#8221; former President Lula, <a href="">released from jail</a>.</p> <p>Only a handful of justices are still to vote. If they decide according to form, the court will be tied and the casting vote will lie with Justice Toffoli.</p> <p>The president&#8217;s supporters online and in the streets have centered their attention on Justice Toffoli, attempting to use their protests and digital warfare to pressure him into voting in their favor. However, all signs point to the chief justice ruling against the possibility of provisional execution of sentences and releasing Lula.</p> <p>It is likely that the chief justice will now be called much worse names by Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s Twitter army than simply &#8220;hyena.&#8221;

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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