Brazil’s longest serving Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello retires from the court this afternoon, 31 years after first occupying his seat. His vacancy has offered far-right President Jair Bolsonaro his very first shot at appointing a justice to the Supreme Court — a process that is often fraught with realpolitik and cynical self-preservation. However, Mr. Bolsonaro’s pick — 48-year-old federal judge Kassio Nunes Marques — came as something of a shock to political pundits in Brasília.
Despite having promised an ultra-conservative and “extremely Evangelical” appointment to the Supreme Court, Jair Bolsonaro selected a justice with long-term links to the well-heeled establishment of Brazilian politics — a group that the president himself railed against throughout his campaign and first year in office, much to the delight of his supporters.[restricted]
Indeed, the process of agreeing on Kassio Nunes Marques as Brazil’s newest Supreme Court justice was a team effort, involving President Bolsonaro sitting down with a number of political actors who his more ideological fans abhor. On September 29, Senate President Davi Alcolumbre met with Mr. Bolsonaro, with the former telephoning current Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes to organize a sit-down with the head of state. Messrs. Alcolumbre and Mendes, it should be noted, have both been targeted and made into effigies by pro-Bolsonaro protesters during demonstrations as recently as May.
Soon after, Jair Bolsonaro arrived at Justice Mendes’s house in Brasília, accompanied by Kassio Nunes Marques. Fellow Supreme Court Justice Dias Toffoli — another bête noire of the president’s ideological base — was also in attendance. As it happened, Mr. Bolsonaro and Justice Toffoli were pictured hugging after the meeting, dividing the president’s supporters on social media.
Two days later, Mr. Bolsonaro declared the appointment of Kassio Nunes Marques, who will now have to pass a largely perfunctory confirmation hearing in the Senate.
A bolt from the blue
The choice of Kassio Nunes Marques — who intends to go by the title Justice Nunes Marques once sworn in — took almost everyone in Brasília by surprise. He did not feature on even the most exhaustive lists of favorites for a Supreme Court pick and he quickly angered President Bolsonaro’s ultra-conservative supporters, to which the head of state’s choices have largely been beholden so far.
First and foremost, Nunes Marques’s political affiliations were called into question. While on the one hand he was branded as a lackey of the so-called “Big Center” — the large establishment caucus within Congress, made up of small to medium-sized parties willing to buy and sell their support — some pointed to his alleged links to the center-left Workers’ Party, Jair Bolsonaro’s declared enemies, with whom fraternization is seen as a cardinal sin within Bolsonarism.
Indeed, in 2011, Marques Nunes entered the Federal Regional Appellate Court of the 1st Region, in Brasília, after being appointed by former President Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party.
He was also involved in an emblematic case in 2019, when he overturned a trial court decision to suspend the purchase of wine and lobsters for a Supreme Court function. The case was capitalized upon by supporters of President Bolsonaro — including his politician sons — as an example of the excessive privileges enjoyed by the country’s highest court, which they intended to have shut down.
In another high-profile trial dating back to 2015, he voted in favor of suspending the deportation of Cesare Battisti, the former communist activist who was sentenced to life in prison for quadruple homicide in his home country of Italy, before fleeing to Brazil to receive political asylum from former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Under Jair Bolsonaro’s government, Mr. Battisti was eventually arrested and extradited to Italy.
The Cesare Battisti case held particular importance for the ideological platform of the then-nascent Jair Bolsonaro government. As a former member of a far-left terrorist group in Italy, and having been given shelter by Lula, arresting and deporting Mr. Battisti was a message to the Brazilian left, as well as being a way to further the government’s foreign policy goals.
The man in the middle
Despite allegations of links to the center-left Workers’ Party, Nunes Marques’s most credible alliances do indeed lie with the Big Center. Indeed, his wife Maria do Socorro has worked under four senators from the couple’s home state of Piauí, all of them from traditional Big Center parties. Indeed, she was set to double her salary just as her husband got his own big break, when the Progressistas party lined her up for a commissioned post in the Senate but backed down once the news had been published by Rio de Janeiro paper O Globo.
The Progressistas party is presided over by Ciro Nogueira, who is now a close ally of President Bolsonaro and one of Mr. Nunes Marques’s biggest backers. Last year, Mr. Nogueira praised the soon-to-be Supreme Court justice during a trial session. “Our Kassio [Nunes Marques] is a highly respected figure in the legal world of today, I am certain that he will reach the high courts, either the [Superior Court of Justice] or the Supreme Court. He is a much liked and respected individual.”[/restricted]