By Lise Alves, Senior Contributing Reporter
SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – The death of Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki on Thursday (January 19th) has left Brazilians wondering what will happen to the largest corruption scandal investigations ever undertaken by federal prosecutors.
Zavascki was killed when the small plane he was in crashed into the waters near Paraty, in the Southeastern coastline of Rio de Janeiro state.
Zavascki was overseeing much of the Lava Jato (Carwash) investigation, including the plea-bargaining processes of the 77 executives from the Odebrecht group.
“Minister Teori Zavascki represents one of the high points in the history of our Justice. His work will remain forever, and his presence and example will remain a path from which we will not be diverted, aware that people die, their works and examples do not,” said the note released by Carmen Lucia Rocha, Supreme Court Chief Justice.
Preliminary reports are calling the plane crash an accident, since due to the rain visibility was nearly zero when the plane’s pilot tried to land at the Paraty airport, but authorities have already stated that a full investigation into the crash will be conducted.
The fear now among many Brazilians and international observers is that the mega Lava Jato investigation may be undermined with the death of the Supreme Court Judge.
“It is imperative that the work of the Lava Jato Task Force goes on and that all those implicated are brought to justice, no matter how powerful they are,” said the board chairman of Transparency International, José Ugaz. “There must be a quick appointment of a competent and committed new Supreme Court Justice.”
Under internal rules of the Supreme Court, in case of death or removal of a judge, the cases and proceedings under the judge’s responsibility must be inherited by the person who occupies the vacancy. In this case, the proceedings will be passed to a Supreme Court Justice to be appointed by President Michel Temer.
Temer’s appointee to Zavascki’s seat in the Supreme Court will have to be approved by Brazil’s Senate, which has already found many of its members implicated or under investigation in the Lava Jato scandal.
There are, however, exceptions to the rule, where the court deems the cases are urgent, according to legal experts. Analysts say that if the Supreme Court Chief Justice is not able to redistribute Zavascki’s case load now, President Temer would have the power to dictate the future direction Lava Jato investigations. Temer is from the PMDB party, one of the political parties most hindered by the corruption investigation.
“In my view, the urgent procedures under the responsibility of Teori Zavascki must be immediately redistributed,” said Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurelio Mello in an interview with BandNews FM.
“Without him, there would have been no Lava Jato Operation,” said Sergio Moro, the federal judge who has been one of the faces of the Lava Jato investigations.
Adding, “I hope the legacy of his serenity, seriousness and continuous work in law enforcement regardless of the interests involved, even if powerful [interests], is not forgotten.”