Brazilian president's former lawyer takes seat as Supreme Court justice

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Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, right, and new Supreme Court Justice Cristiano Zanin, pose for photos after his swearing-in ceremony, in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. Zanin, a former personal lawyer of Lula, took his seat on Thursday amid criticism that their relationship poses a conflict of interest. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

RIO DE JANEIRO – The former personal lawyer of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took a seat on the country’s Supreme Court on Thursday amid criticism that their relationship poses a conflict of interest.

Lula appointed Cristiano Zanin in June, drawing accusations from the opposition that he is jeopardizing the impartiality of Brazil's highest court by making a friend one of its justices. The president denies having a friendship with the lawyer.

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Zanin, who holds a law degree from the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo, specializes in procedural and business law.

He helped Lula overturn convictions stemming from Brazil's sprawling “Car Wash” corruption investigation, getting him freed after 580 days of incarceration. The Supreme Court annulled all convictions of Lula, and ruled in 2021 that the judge overseeing the case had been biased. That allowed Lula to run successfuly for his third, non-consecutive presidential term.

In July, senators examining Zanin's appointment questioned the lawyer about his ability to remain unbiased. He reminded senators he will not be able to judge on cases he worked on as a lawyer.

“My side has always been the same, the side of the constitution,” Zanin said. “For me, there is only one side; the other is barbarism, abuse of power.”

A large majority of senators went on to vote in favor of his nomination, making the 47-year-old the youngest justice on the 11-member court.

Lula, who in March called Zanin “his friend” on radio BandNews FM, backpedalled in a later interview. “He was not a friend, he was my lawyer,” Lula told Record TV in July after Zanin's appointment had been approved by the Senate. “He is an extremely capable person ... He is very studious, he is very competent, he is very dedicated and he is very serious. This is the reason why he was chosen."

On the campaign trail, Lula made a veiled criticism that then-President Jair Bolsonaro, his main opponent in the race, tried to politicize the Supreme Court. “I am convinced that trying to meddle with the Supreme Court to place a friend, to place a partner, to place a supporter is a setback,” Lula said.

Zanin is filling the seat vacated by the April retirement of Justice Ricardo Lewandowski. In Brazil, Supreme Court justices must retire at 75, an age that Justice Rosa Weber will reach in October.

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