Joaquim Barbosa has been named the first black chief justice of the highest court in Brazil, a country where more than half the population is of African descent.

The jurist, who came from humble origins, began Thursday a two-year term as president of the Federal Supreme Court and simultaneously of the National Council of Justice, a body responsibile for the functioning of the entire Brazilian judiciary.

Barbosa attained prominence in recent years for his work as lead judge in a corruption case that has seen several important allies of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva sentenced to long prison terms.

"In a society like ours with a large presence of blacks, it speaks very well of our country, of our democracy, that for the first time a black man becomes chief justice of the Supreme Court," Attorney General Roberto Gurgel said.

While two Afro-Brazilians served on the highest court in the early 20th century, Barbosa, who joined the tribunal in 2003, is the first black chief justice.

He made a particular point of this historic moment by inviting prominent Afro-Brazilians to the ceremony, also attended by President Dilma Rousseff and other dignitaries.

The new chief justice, who speaks English, Spanish, German and French as well as Portuguese, is the son of a builder and a housewife who started at the bottom and rose to his present eminence in public life thanks to his intellectual capacity.

Barbosa won unprecedented popularity for a judge in Brazil for the strength he showed as examining magistrate in the ongoing corruption case that has been dubbed the "trial of the century." EFE