The swearing-in of Ralph Gants as chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court in 2014 was a fancy occasion.
The assembled guests included many of those who had helped Gants reach that podium: former governor William F. Weld, who had hired him as an assistant US attorney; former FBI director William Webster, who had been his boss in Washington; his distinguished predecessors as chief justice, Margaret H. Marshall and Roderick I. Ireland.
In true Gants fashion, he paid homage to his history and punctured the solemnity in a single deft stroke.
“I did not come alone to this podium,” Gants observed. “I stand here with my parents, who both have passed and whose ashes we recently buried together in a garden they would have enjoyed, in the company of interesting people, across the street from a good Jewish deli.”
Gants, who died unexpectedly Monday, was 65. Though he had recently undergone heart surgery, he had announced a gradual return to active duty. Though friends were urging him to pace himself, no one imagined that someone as full of life as Ralph Gants would leave so soon. He liked to say that his appointment represented two firsts: He was the SJC’s first Jewish chief justice. And, also, the first who was a member of the Over-the-Hill Soccer League.
“His laughter was infectious and his enthusiasm was overabundant,” Marshall said Tuesday. “I would not say he was someone who retired to his chambers and wasn’t heard from.”
Gants was appointed as an associate justice of the SJC in 2007 by Governor Deval Patrick. He had a reputation as a stellar trial judge who was both a brilliant legal scholar and a student of human nature.
“He saw the human lives and dynamics behind the cases, and that came from being a trial judge before being chief,” Patrick said. “But it also came from being a humanist, a person who was concerned about human personalities and people’s lives. I think it made him a wiser and better jurist.”
Overlooked, perhaps, at the time of his appointment was something else: a fierce commitment to equity. His time in the trenches of the court system had honed a sense that things weren’t always fair, and he wasn’t one to look the other way.
“He was a visionary,” said Ireland, who had been the court’s first Black chief justice. “I give him a lot of credit for wanting to do right by people of color, and recognizing the disparate treatment of people of color. He was trying to do the right thing, and I’m hoping he opened the door for whoever follows him to continue in that direction.”
His latest effort in trying to move the courts in the right direction was to commission a study, released just last week, that quantified unequal punishment for Black and Latino defendants.
Marshall said she has no doubt that he would have acted forcefully in response.
“I think he reached out to people because he wanted to hear what wasn’t working and he wanted to do something about it,” Marshall said. “I don’t think there was a single report he asked for that he didn’t act on. A report gathering dust on a bookshelf was not in his lexicon.”
Shannon McAuliffe, a former public defender, saw Gants’s passion for justice at close hand. A client in a murder case out of Brockton was convicted after questionable police work and dubious eyewitness testimony. Gants was part of the majority on the court that voted to overturn the guilty verdict. When the case was retried, the defendant was acquitted.
Though the appeal was decided on a different issue, Gants told McAuliffe years later that he was struck by the terrible eyewitness testimony — they didn’t remember the very distinctive shirt the supposed shooter had been wearing.
“He said he had spent hours looking at that shirt,” McAuliffe said. “He was always someone who dug deeper than they needed to to get at real truth and justice.”
It was that same passion to dig deeper, she believes, that led him to a more systemic, evidence-based examination of the courts.
“Judges have a way of believing their gut is right,” McAuliffe said. “Lawyers, too, often avoid looking outside of a courtroom to determine what is going on and how to address inequities. And he was really the leader in that.”
It now falls to Governor Charlie Baker and the next chief justice, whoever that may be, to ensure that the quest for a fairer court system continues.
That work will be Gants’s legacy. He casts a huge shadow.
“There will be other chief justices and there will be other great chief justices,” Marshall said. “The work of the court continues. But I think all of us recognize the magnitude of the loss.”