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Associate justice Ralph Gants was unanimously confirmed by the Governor's Council on Wednesday to be the next chief justice of the state's highest court, a move that also paves the way for Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick to put a further imprint on the court before he leaves office in January.
Patrick nominated Gants last month to succeed Roderick Ireland as the state's top judge on the Supreme Judicial Court. Ireland, the court's first black chief justice, plans to step down next month as he approaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.
The 8-0 vote by the Governor's Council, which reviews all judicial nominations, followed three days of hearings on the nomination of Gants, a one-time FBI lawyer and federal prosecutor who served 12 years as a Superior Court judge before joining the SJC in 2009.
"Justice Gants answered my questions," said Jen Caissie, the only Republican on the eight-member elected council. "I didn't agree with every opinion that the man has written over the course of his long legal career, but I don't need to do that to support this nomination."
Caissie noted that Gants, 59, was first appointed a judge by a Republican governor, William Weld, and said she was heartened that Gants had shown respect for the rights of gun owners in Massachusetts.
In his two terms as governor, Patrick has already named four members of the current seven-member court. The elevation of Gants to chief justice will now allow him to nominate a fifth member and likely assure that his appointees hold a majority of the court until at least 2020.
Patrick said his administration had already vetted some possible nominees and he hoped to announce his pick soon.
"I'm looking for people who will interpret the law and not make new law, (who) will honor constitutional principles and above all see the people behind the cases, that they are not just docket numbers but actual people with issues they are trying to work out," the governor told reporters after Wednesday's vote.
In addition to Gants, Patrick appointed associate justices Margot Botsford, Fernande Duffy and Barbara Lenk. The two other justices who will remain on the court after Ireland's departure, Francis Spina and Robert Cordy, were appointed by the late Paul Cellucci, a Republican.
Councilor Michael Albano, a Democrat, said he backed the responses Gants had given during the confirmation hearings on social issues including gay marriage and death penalty.
Gants said he believed gay marriage was "settled law" in the state and unlikely to face a future legal challenge. He declined to say how he might rule if the death penalty were reinstated in Massachusetts, but noted that as a private attorney in the 1990s he helped draw up legal arguments against restoring capital punishment.
Councilor Marilyn Devaney, who chaired the nomination hearings, said in addition to having the right blend of knowledge, legal experience and temperament, Gants also showed "a genuine sense of humor."