Remembering Ralph Gants

He took his work, his friends, and sports seriously

AT AGE 15, Ralph Gants protested outside one of the exclusive country clubs in his hometown. Blacks and Jews were not welcome at the club. Ralph and a small group of students decided to do something about it. They marched, the media arrived, and neither the police nor the club were happy.  At one point an officer grabbed Ralph’s arm to arrest him. At the end of the day, he was let go, but the club’s policy changed.

Long before black lives mattered, they mattered to Ralph. From the early days of that local protest against a club’s exclusionary policy, Ralph’s career was been about “access.” Justice was an illusion for too many. He favored restorative justice and fought the inequity of mandatory sentences. Despite long days on the bench, without fanfare, he spent endless nights visiting and cheering on community programs that insured equal justice.

Much has been recently written about the just released Harvard Law School study he commissioned on discrimination in the judicial system. He wasn’t afraid of looking inward at the system he led. It was too important.  But few knew he had just taken on a new project — evictions. With the ban on evictions ending in October, he knew the housing courts would be overwhelmed. More importantly, he understood the human tragedy that would soon unfold with tens of thousands of families homeless and on the street. It wasn’t his job to solve this, but he couldn’t stand by. Someone had to convene stakeholders and find a solution.

A dozen years ago, when Ralph was first being considered for appointment to the Supreme Judicial Court, he asked friends for advice. Of course, he would be a superb choice, but there was a problem. He offered the governor absolutely no political benefit based on race, gender, geography, or political connections. He had no political connections. The only argument for his appointment was merit. To his credit, then-Gov. Deval Patrick nominated Ralph Gants as an associate justice to the Supreme Judicial Court in 2009 and later as chief justice in 2014.

While tributes have poured in about his work, Patrick noted Ralph’s human side. “He was also wicked funny, taking his work seriously, but never himself seriously.” That was Ralph. But if he took his work seriously, he also took sports and physical exercise seriously. He was a die-hard sports fan, and he made fun of his intensity playing in the Over the Hill Soccer League. He hiked, biked, and swam, beyond our endurance.

On one endless bike trip together, we couldn’t keep up. He let us down gently, advising us it was the bike’s fault, not ours. He couldn’t leave it at that and took us to his “bike guy,” in a basement in Woburn, who collected bike parts and reassembled them. Ralph wasn’t going to have us pay retail for a new bike. The bike guy loved Ralph but had no idea who he was. That was also Ralph.

Meet the Author
Ralph Gants was a brilliant jurist, writer, scholar, and teacher. Most importantly, he was a devoted husband and partner to the equally brilliant Deborah Ramirez and father to two children who are rising stars. For the rest of us, he was our friend. He was just one of us.

George Bachrach is the former head of the Environmental League of Massachusetts and a former state senator.