A tireless advocate for access to justice, Ralph D. Gants ’80 (1954-2020)

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants ’80, a tireless advocate for access to justice, died on Sept. 14. Gants was recuperating from a recent heart attack. He was 65.

Renowned for his intelligence and his integrity, Gants used his leadership role in the commonwealth’s court system to press for fairness, equality under the law, and justice for all. In his memory, all Massachusetts courthouses were closed on Friday, Sept. 18.

“Chief Justice Gants was a wise and careful judge and a highly impactful chief justice who cared deeply about, and worked hard to promote, access to justice,” said Harvard Law School Dean John F. Manning ’85.“This is a loss for the justice system, for the commonwealth and for all who care about humanizing the law. We are grateful for his service to the commonwealth. Our hearts go out to his family.”

In addition to his service on the court, Gants taught at Harvard Law School as well as New England Law in Boston and Northeastern University School of Law.

Former Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow said: “He was fearless about facing historic injustices.”

In 2016, Gants partnered with Minow to find ways to address the unequal delivery of justice, commissioning Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program to conduct a study of racial disparities in the commonwealth’s courts.

In announcing the collaboration, Gants said: “Through the training of judges and court staff, bench cards, and even jury instructions, we are examining the implicit bias that afflicts all of us, and are seeking to ensure that bias does not infect our bail and sentencing decisions. We need to explore the reasons behind the great disparity in the rates of imprisonment among whites, African Americans and Hispanics in the commonwealth.”

The results of the study, released just days ago, showed that Black and Latino defendants constitute a disproportionately high percentage of the commonwealth’s criminal cases and receive longer sentences than white defendants. Gants described the report as “a must-read for anyone who is committed to understanding the reasons for such disparities and taking action to end them.”

Gants served as co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, which works at a systemic level to improve access to justice. Over the past few years, he had taken a particular interest in the problem of unequal access to counsel in eviction cases, which in Massachusetts generally pit an unrepresented tenant against a represented landlord. In 2019, he wrote a seminal opinion, Adjartey v. Central Division of the Housing Court Department, on the challenges that unrepresented tenants face in eviction proceedings that recognized the stress the threat of eviction entails and how complicated and fast-moving the procedures are. In his October 2019 State of the Judiciary address, he endorsed the right to counsel in eviction hearings.

“Chief Justice Gants had a passion for ensuring that the justice system served everybody equally and that it was accessible to everybody,” said Harvard Law School Clinical Professor Esme Caramello ’99, who serves on the Access to Justice Commission and co-chairs its housing working group. “He was always on the lookout for injustice, especially systemic racism, and when he spotted a problem, he would own it and get to work. And he never worked alone. He accomplished so much because his moral strength and determination inspired everyone around him to try harder to solve our justice system’s hardest and most important problems.”

Caramello, who is the faculty director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, had been working with the chief justice in his efforts to find creative solutions to the anticipated wave of eviction cases expected to result from job losses in the COVID-19 pandemic. Gants had devoted much of his time over the past few months to bringing together a wide variety of stakeholders from the public and private sectors to develop plans to minimize the human suffering that might be caused by a less coordinated approach. Gants continued his work on the effort even after his Sept. 4 heart attack, calling the looming eviction crisis the greatest access-to-justice issue of his lifetime.

Sue Finegan, co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, said one of the amazing things about Gants was that he acted to make a difference on so many issues, from racial justice and criminal justice reform to access to civil justice, including housing. “He was also an innovator, not just in our state, but nationally, on access-to-justice issues,” she said, including through his work on the Conference of Chief Justices Access and Fairness Committee and the Justice for All initiative.

At the same time, she said, he felt a great responsibility as chief of the court system to understand what it was like for court users—particularly those who don’t have access to lawyers or technology or don’t speak English as their first language. “He really used his position as chief to effect incredible change,” said Finegan.

In a tribute in The Boston Globe, his longtime colleague SJC Associate Justice Barbara A. Lenk ’79 remembered Gants as “a brilliant thinker, a remarkable administrator, and one of the greatest chief justices that the Supreme Judicial Court has ever been privileged to have.” Retired SJC Associate Justice Robert J. Cordy ’74 told the Globe in an email: “I have always had the highest regard for him as a person, a lawyer, and a judge who cared deeply about ensuring that our system of justice was indeed just and fair to everyone.”

Gants was first appointed to the bench in 1997 by former Gov. William Weld ’70. He served as a judge on the Massachusetts Superior Court for more than 11 years and was administrative justice of the Superior Court’s Business Litigation Session in 2008. In January 2009, he was sworn in as an associate justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s top appellate court, by then-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick ’82.

When Patrick elevated him as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s 37th chief justice in 2014, Gants became the first Jewish chief justice in the court’s 328-year history. Gants replaced retired SJC Chief Justice Roderick Ireland LL.M. ’75, the first African American to serve in that position. In a statement, Patrick described Gants as a “learned, rigorous, serious, and sincere jurist who faithfully honored constitutional principles and also saw the people behind the docket numbers.”

Born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1954, Gants earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College in 1976, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. The following year, he completed a diploma in criminology at Cambridge University in England. In 1980, he earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School, where he was notes editor of the Harvard Law Review.

He began his legal career as a law clerk to United States District Court Judge Eugene H. Nickerson and then served as a special assistant to then-FBI Director William H. Webster. He later joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston as an assistant attorney general and chief of the Public Corruption Unit.

He subsequently went into private practice, rising to partner at the firm formerly known as Palmer & Dodge, before Weld appointed him to the Superior Court bench.

In 1988, Gants married Deborah A. Ramirez ’81, a fellow HLS graduate with whom he had worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Ramirez, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law, founded the Justice Bridge program at the University of Massachusetts School of Law to connect new lawyers with clients of modest means. Their children are Rachel Ramirez Gants ’20, who while at HLS was active in the Tenant Advocacy Project, where she represented tenants facing the denial of access to subsidized housing or the loss of their housing subsidies; and Michael Ramirez Gants, who co-founded a Boston-based startup, JustiServ, with his mother to use technology to help low- and moderate-income individuals access legal assistance.

Obituary from the Boston Globe

Daniel Medwed ’95: Remembering SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants