Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants is being remembered as a profound legal mind with a deep commitment to making sure the justice system is fair for all. The court's associate justices announced Gants' death Monday afternoon.
Gants, 65, had served as the high court's top judge since July 2014, when he was sworn in to the post by former Gov. Deval Patrick.
Gants death was sudden. He had announced last Tuesday that he underwent surgery after suffering a heart attack on Sept. 4, but expected to return to the court.
Justice Frank Gaziano said Gants was following proceedings in a lawsuit around Gov. Charlie Baker's powers during the COVID-19 emergency and planned to participate in the final decision.
The other justices said they were announcing Gants' death "with deep sadness."
Chief Justice Roderick Ireland — who Gants replaced in 2014 after serving five years as an associate justice on Ireland’s court — said Gants was someone who wanted to see the system work for everyone: “Not just for the well-to-do but for the disenfranchised, for the people who struggle mightily to make it every day.”
Ireland pointed to Gants’ enlistment of Harvard researchers to study disparities in the Massachusetts court system — a choice made long before the recent racial justice protests. Researchers found Black and Latino people make up a disproportionate percentage of all criminal cases, and get longer sentences than white people, too.
“Thanks to Ralph, we have that information," Ireland said. "Had he not thought of having that done, who knows when if ever we would have gotten that kind of data.”
"He wasn’t a bookworm so to speak, or cabined away inside the chambers of the Supreme Judicial Court. He was out among the people. And he really cared deeply for people."Martin Healy, COO, Massachusetts Bar Association
Many people spoke of Gants kindness and compassion. He was well liked in a variety of legal circles. His close friend Appeals Court Chief Justice Mark Green said Gants came from a humble background and he never forgot who he was.
"He was irrepressibly upbeat, optimistic, had a very quick wit, a great sense of humor, was a great husband and father," Green said, his voice breaking, "and a wonderful friend."
Green, like others, was shocked by the news. He had spoken with Gants on Saturday, when the chief justice said he was feeling better and planning to return to the court on a limited basis.
Several people recalled a speech Gants gave at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in 2015, when anti-Muslim sentiment was sweeping the country. Gants went to the midday prayer service to assure them the judiciary would help.
"You do not stand alone. You have a constitution and laws to protect your right to practice your religion, to protect you from discrimination and denial of your equal rights, and to protect you from acts of violence that may be committed against you because of your religion or your nation of origin," Gants said.
Retired Justice Margot Botsford said Gants always tried to address problems.
"There are so many initiatives that he started: access to justice, lawyer well-being, the moratorium on evictions," she said. "There is nothing that he didn't try to fix, if you will, as appropriate for a court and a judge to do."
Martin Healy, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Bar Association, knew Gants for years, both personally and professionally. He said Gants was incredibly smart and extremely kind.
“He wasn’t a bookworm so to speak, or cabined away inside the chambers of the Supreme Judicial Court," he said."He was out among the people. And he really cared deeply for people.”
Outside the courthouse, Healy said, Gants was a rabid Red Sox fan, and spent weekends playing in an over-50 soccer league.
"It’s just so unfortunate because he was so full of life, and he had so much more to give to the court system," Healy said.
Gavin Alexander, an attorney at the firm Ropes & Gray who worked as a clerk for Gants, posted on social media about how his time with the chief justice profoundly affected his life. He recommended Gants to the chief justice post and testified at his confirmation hearing. Gants officiated Alexander’s wedding to his husband in 2015.
“Further, and perhaps most importantly to me, he was the first legal professional to whom I ever admitted that I was suffering from severe depression and had considered killing myself,” Alexander wrote. “As you can imagine, he was completely and unequivocally supportive and protective and ultimately helped me channel my mental health issues into advocacy. Without him, I don't know where I would be, or even if I'd still be with you today.”
Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement that he was "shocked and deeply saddened" by Gants' passing, and described the chief justice as "a dedicated public servant of the highest order."
"He led the Supreme Judicial Court with intelligence, integrity and distinction," Baker said. "His legacy as a judge and as Chief Justice is profound, and he will be sorely missed."
Former Gov. Deval Patrick also offered his condolences and praised Gants, whose passing he called "a profound loss — for his family and friends, for the Supreme Judicial Court, the Judiciary and the Bar, and for all those who seek justice in our courts."
"He was a learned, rigorous, serious and sincere jurist who faithfully honored constitutional principles and also saw the people behind the docket numbers," Patrick added.
Anthony Bendetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counseling Services, in a statement called Gants' death "a devastating loss to the court, the legal system, and the commonwealth."
"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," Bendetti wrote. "There is no doubt that Chief Justice Gants forever left a mark on the SJC."
Gants was born in New York and came to Massachusetts to go to Harvard, where he graduated in 1976, according to his biography. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1980.
He served as clerk to a federal judge and was a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office in Massachusetts. He was also in private practice for a time before he was nominated to the Superior Court, where he served for 11 years. He was married with two children.
Justice Barbara Lenk is now the only justice on the seven-judge SJC not appointed by Baker. Lenk plans to retire on Dec. 1. That gives Baker the unique responsibility of nominating all seven SJC judges. That hasn't happened in recent memory.
Healy, of the Mass. Bar Association, said he expects Baker, a Republican, to continue choosing moderate justices who don't fit the mold of a Republican appointee.
“The court hasn’t really strung into a conservative type mode at all," he said. "And I don’t anticipate the governor will be selecting any type of individuals who will change that type of direction of the court.”
Attorney Victoria Kelleher, head of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Gants work on racial equity in the courts should continue. She called on the governor to diversify the high court.
"We see so much in the way of structural racism," she said. "It's so apparent with what's going on in Massachusetts and across the country. This really presents an opportunity for Gov. Baker to address that and carry on Justice Gants' legacy in that area."
The audio segment attached to this post is a conversation between WBUR's Deborach Becker and Morning Edition host Bob Oakes.
This article was originally published on September 14, 2020.
This segment aired on September 15, 2020.