By Maria Carolina Marcello
BRASILIA (Reuters) - A Senate committee cleared President Michel Temer's nominee for Brazil's Supreme Court on Tuesday despite criticism the choice of his justice minister was aimed at helping shield cabinet members from corruption investigations.
The Constitution and Justice Committee voted 19-7 to accept the appointment of 49-year-old lawyer and law professor Alexandre Moraes to sit on the top court. The full Senate is expected to confirm him Wednesday.
Before becoming minister last year, Moraes was public security secretary in the Sao Paulo state government of the centrist PSDB party, a key ally in Temer's coalition government.
In the 10-hour confirmation hearing, leftist senators slammed his appointment as a move to protect Temer's government from the sprawling Car Wash graft and political kickbacks investigation that has implicated leaders of his PMDB party.
Six members of Temer's cabinet, and the president himself, have been named in plea bargain testimony by defendants in Brazil's biggest corruption scandal and any of the ministers could possibly end up on trial before the Supreme Court.
Moraes, who took leave as minister when he was nominated two weeks ago, vowed to be "absolutely independent and impartial."
But he declined to answer when questioned if he would recuse himself if a case against the Temer involving illegal campaign funds during the 2014 election, in which Temer was impeached leftist Dilma Rousseff's running mate, came to the Supreme Court on appeal.
Moraes denied plagiarizing a Spanish jurist in one of his law books. He also refuted allegations his law firm in Sao Paulo defended a transport company linked to one of Brazil’s largest criminal organizations, the First Command of the Capital gang, known in Brazil by the acronym PCC.
If confirmed, Moraes would take the seat left by Justice Teori Zavascki, who died in a small plane crash last month.
Zavascki handled the cases of politicians involved in the Car Wash probe. But his case load was taken over by another of the 11 justices and Moraes would be in a different chamber.
A source in the PSDB said the party proposed Moraes for justice minister in the Temer cabinet last year with the idea that he should move on to the Supreme Court when a seat opened.
Temer has sought to deepen his alliance with the PSDB to shore up support for reforms he needs to push through Congress to restore fiscal discipline and business confidence in a stagnant economy.
(Writing by Anthony Boadle)