SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants dies
Wide praise for court leader as champion of equal justice
ONLY 10 DAYS after being hospitalized with a heart attack, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants spent Monday morning on the phone from his home talking to attorneys and advocates about the state’s eviction moratorium and pending eviction crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Last year, he wrote about the difficulties litigants face when representing themselves in housing court.
“He was trying to bring all the stakeholders together –– the executive branch, judiciary, legal services — for a solution around the moratorium,” said Sue Finegan, an attorney at Mintz Levin, who spoke with Gants this morning.
Later Monday, Gants died, according to a brief statement released by the SJC. He was 65.
Colleagues in the legal community and beyond reacted with shock and anguish at news of Gants’s death, citing his commitment to equal justice for all and his keen appreciation for the ways the judicial system affects individuals – something underscored by his concern for how courts would handle eviction cases.
Former governor Deval Patrick, who appointed Gants chief justice in 2014, called him, a “sincere jurist who faithfully honored constitutional principles and also saw the people behind the docket numbers.”
Just last week, a report Gants commissioned was released by researchers at Harvard Law School that documented racial disparities in the court system.
Four years ago, Gants highlighted the huge racial disparities in incarceration rates in his annual address on the state of the judiciary, and announced the study examine of the factors driving those inequities.
Former Supreme Judicial Court justice Robert Cordy, now an attorney in private practice, who has known Gants for decades, said the report was typical of him. “I think this was just Ralph being who he is, someone who cared deeply about justice and fairness for everyone,” Cordy said.
“He saw the court and realized there was a bias in there that we had to address,” said Robert Harnais, past president of the Massachusetts and New England Bar Associations.
Court decisions under Gants’s tenure reflected a willingness to challenge the status quo on matters of race and justice. In 2016, the SJC ruled that a black man running from police may have reasonable grounds for doing so, and his flight alone cannot be used against him.
Lon Povich, who was a member of the Judicial Nominating Committee when Gants was appointed to the Superior and Supreme Judicial Courts and later served as Gov. Charlie Baker’s legal counsel, said Gants’s priorities included ensuring access to justice and the efficient functioning of the courts, improving the criminal justice system, and improving the work of housing courts for tenants as well as landlords.
Gants used his 2019 State of the Judiciary address to endorse a right to counsel for indigent tenants in eviction proceedings.
“He was all about improving access to justice especially for those who needed it the most,” Povich said.
Baker said he was “shocked and deeply saddened” by Gants’s passing. Baker said Gants “led the Supreme Judicial Court with intelligence, integrity and distinction. In his decisions and in his role as the leader of the Commonwealth’s judicial branch, he always worked to promote the public good.”
Baker will be charged with nominating a new chief justice as well as a new justice to the court.
Gants suffered a heart attack on September 4, and had two stents placed in the occluded artery. Gants said he expected to resume his full-time duties as chief justice, though initially on a limited basis.
He is survived by his wife, Deborah Ramirez, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law, and two children.
Gants was born in 1954 in New Rochelle, New York. He graduated from Harvard College, England’s Cambridge University, where he received a criminology degree, and, magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School.
In addition to time in private practice at the Boston firm Palmer & Dodge, Gants served as a special assistant to FBI director William Webster after working as a clerk to US District Court Judge Eugene H. Nickerson. He also served as assistant US attorney in Massachusetts and the chief of the public corruption unit, and associate justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court for 11 years. He was named an associate justice of the SJC by Patrick in 2009 before being elevated five years later to the court’s top post.
Retired SJC chief justice Margaret Marshall said Gants grew into the job “remarkably quickly,” and she was impressed that he carried a full case load, something chief justices in other states don’t always do. “He was an extraordinarily busy man,” she said, adding that he nonetheless always found time to talk, and was an excellent conversationalist and dinner companion.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered courts temporarily, presented a challenge that Gants took very seriously. “He knew people needed access to courts every day,” Marshall said.
State leaders praised Gants’s devotion to equal justice, with statements released this afternoon by Attorney General Maura Healey, state Auditor Suzanne Bump, Senate President Karen Spilka, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.
Stoneham state Rep. Michael Day, an attorney, recalled appearing before Gants when he was an administrative justice of the Superior Court’s business litigation session.
“He was always superbly prepared for hearings, and always respectful to both sides,” Day said. More recently, Day interacted with Gants on a bill that would fund attorneys in civil cases for those who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. “He’s been a leader for access to justice and right to counsel issues,” Day said.
“Chief Justice Gants was a wonderful person who treated everyone with respect and dignity. He was a brilliant, thoughtful jurist who was fair to every litigant who appeared before him, said Anthony J. Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which provides representation to indigent defendants.
“He really sought racial equity in the court system” said Appeals Court Chief Justice Mark Green. Green met Gants when they were both young attorneys practicing law in Boston. Gants was working at the office of then-US Attorney Bill Weld with Green’s wife, Karen. Their children wound up attending nursery school together, and the families shared birthdays and socialized together regularly.
Green said when he spoke to Gants on Saturday, he was energetic.“I‘ve lost not just a friend but a partner,“ he said through tears of their work together in the court system.