I enjoyed no great rate of success in cases before the late Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants. His characteristic expression during my oral arguments is perfectly captured in the phrase “Nice try.” But he did actually value nice tries, and he understood very well the proper role of a state supreme court in the justice system. He took on the duty of recognizing the pervasive systemic challenges and provided leadership that called on all of the practitioners to join all of the citizens to try to get things right. His racial justice commission was one example, his eyewitness study group another.
The role of judge is a strange one. You sit up high; people laugh at your worst jokes. The absence of outside pressures allows your internal character to take its own full form and express itself. During my long experience as a lawyer, this context has revealed that a great many judges sought, enjoyed, and persisted in the job for the wrong reasons. Now and then, however, this context shows you someone who, when released to be himself, turns out to be kind, empathetic, patient, and good. So it was with Ralph Gants.
The writer, a defense lawyer and author, is the former head of the Public Defender Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services.