Governor Deval Patrick’s nomination of Justice Ralph D. Gants to succeed the retiring Roderick L. Ireland as chief justice of the state Supreme Court offers a reminder that when voters elect a governor, as they will this year, they may also be in effect electing justices to the state’s highest court. In a presidential year, which we are two years away from, voters by electing a president may be choosing U.S. Supreme Court justices who could long impact America for good or ill. Americans are regularly reminded of the latter.
After the governor fills Justice Gants’ seat on the court this spring he will have appointed five of the seven justices on the SJC, assuring his legacy continues in that arena long after he has stepped down as governor. In Justice Gants, appointed to the SJC by Governor Patrick five years ago, the governor has chosen a chief justice admired for his intellect and for the absence of any apparent political agenda. He has written respected decisions in civil liberties and consumer protection cases, with his declaration for the majority last year that "cigarettes are an inherently defective and unreasonably dangerous product" likely to have an impact well outside Massachusetts in coming years.
At a press conference Thursday, Justice Gants said a major challenge facing courts is assuring fairness for all, including those who are poor or cannot speak English. His nomination must be approved by the Governor’s Council, which can be an adventure, but the Council approved his appointment to the bench by a 6 to 2 vote.
The SJC’s mandatory retirement age of 70 is a double-edged sword, as it can force a capable judge to retire but it may also free the court of an ideologue. There is no such escape route on the U.S. Supreme Court, where right-wing ideologues John Roberts and Samuel Alito, both appointed by President George W. Bush, may be around for decades. Along with their ideology, they have demonstrated no respect for judicial precedent in brutal decisions involving privacy rights and campaign finance. President Obama’s two appointees, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, have demonstrated moderation and a respect for case law but they are regularly on the losing end of 5 to 4 decisions.
We know from civics classes that Supreme Court justices are not elected, but in effect they are. That is something to remember at the ballot box this November and again in 2016.