Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Gants dies; honored for passion, integrity

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Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants has died, his fellow judges announced 10 days after he suffered a heart attack. He was remembered Monday for his passion for justice and the respect he showed for those who came before him in court.

Gants, 65, was the high court's first Jewish chief justice. When he took his oath of office in July 2014, he quipped that he was also the first top judge to play in "over-the-hill soccer league."

Gants announced last Tuesday that he'd had a heart attack on Sept. 4. After having two stents inserted in an artery, he said he expected to resume his full duties, initially on a limited basis.

He remained involved in court proceedings in the days after his surgery, on Wednesday heralding the release of a report on racial disparities, which he'd sought four years earlier. On Friday, Associate Justice Frank Gaziano said that Gants was following the arguments in a lawsuit around Gov. Charlie Baker's powers during the COVID-19 emergency and planned to participate in the final decision.

A Monday afternoon statement from the six associate justices announced his death "with great sadness."

"Our hearts and prayers are with his family," the statement said. "We have no further information at this time."

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called Gants' death "absolutely heartbreaking news for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, fairness, equity, and justice."

"The moral conscience for criminal justice reform, Supreme Court Justice Chief Ralph Gants, has died. A truly great, thoughtful & brilliant human being," Eldridge wrote on Twitter.

Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington also released a statement on Monday afternoon.

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“I send my condolences to Justice Gants’ family, friends, and the entire legal community reeling from this unexpected loss. We will deeply miss his dedication to justice and his intellect and deep thought on the Supreme Judicial Court,” District Attorney Andrea Harrington said.

“Justice Gants is a true champion of criminal justice reform. His advocacy made Massachusetts safer, stronger, and more equitable. He understood the power those in the justice system have over the lives of our community members and inspired us to use that power for good. We are grateful for his time serving the Commonwealth with compassion, understanding, and humanity.”

State law specifies that when the chief justice office is vacant on the Supreme Judicial Court, the chief's "duties shall be performed by the senior justice present and qualified to act."

Gants was one of two judges on the seven-member SJC bench not appointed by Baker. The other is Justice Barbara Lenk, a fellow Gov. Deval Patrick appointee who plans to retire on Dec. 1, the day before she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.

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Baker said Gants leaves a "profound" legacy as chief justice.

"He was a dedicated public servant of the highest order and sought to do justice his entire 40-year legal career," the governor said in a statement. "He 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."

Born in New Rochelle, N.Y. on Sept. 29, 1954, Gants earned his bachelor's degree and law degree from Harvard and completed a diploma in criminology at England's Cambridge University. He began his legal career clerking for U.S. District Court Judge Eugene Nickerson, served as special assistant to FBI director William Webster, and was an assistant U.S. attorney in Massachusetts and chief of the public corruption unit before moving to private practice at a Boston law firm.

Gov. William Weld appointed Gants to the Superior Court in 1997, and Patrick elevated him to the Supreme Judicial Court in 2009, where he served as an associate justice for about five years.

"It has been one of the great honors of my life to be included in this band of brothers and sisters, and if I am confirmed it will be an even greater honor to serve as their chief," Gants said at his 2014 confirmation hearing after Patrick tapped him to be the next chief justice.

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At the outset of the three-day hearing, Roderick Ireland, who Gants succeeded as chief justice, said Gants "could have been a comedy writer if he was not so passionate about the law," and his former law clerk, Gavin Fishman described him as "staggeringly brilliant."

In his 2019 State of the Judiciary address, delivered last October, Gants said he'd learned many lessons since he first became a judge more than two decades earlier. Perhaps the most important, he said, "is that justice is a team effort." Improving the justice system requires collaboration, too, he said.

"If we bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice, one case at time, we do so because a wise and patient judge presides over a courtroom that is well organized by an experienced clerk; that is kept calm and safe by a savvy and good-humored court officer; that is supported by probation officers who care deeply about the success of the persons under their supervision, and the safety of the public; that sits in a courthouse that is kept functional and clean, often despite its old age and deteriorating condition, by a committed facilities staff," Gants said.

Anthony Benedetti of the Committee for Public Counsel Services said Monday that Gants left a permanent mark on the SJC.

"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," Benedetti said. "This is a devastating loss to the court, the legal system and the commonwealth."

American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose remembered Gants as "a champion of access to justice for all communities in Massachusetts, a fierce believer in the need to address racial disparities in the criminal legal system, and a compassionate listener to every person who came before the court."

Attorney General Maura Healey said Gants "made incomparable and lasting contributions to the rule of law and the betterment of society" and said that as chief justice, he "focused on how the legal system affects people's lives, and consistently worked to expand access to justice and racial equity."

Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo each expressed condolences on behalf of their respective legislative bodies.

"An important voice in reforming our criminal justice system, his contributions will long be remembered as helping us move towards a more just Commonwealth," Spilka said. "It is that passion for justice and commitment to fairness that guided him through his decades of service — and for that, he will be missed."


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