Remembering Justice Ralph D. Gants: ‘A living example of what lawyers can do to make our world better’

Illustration of Ralph D. Gants

Credit: Diana Stroud

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants ’80 wasn’t just a legal giant, a pride to Harvard Law School and a tireless advocate for social and racial justice. He was also, as former Governor Deval Patrick ’82 put it, “a mensch.”

Several of the late justice’s distinguished friends and colleagues paid their tributes on Tuesday in an online event that mixed career appreciations with often-emotional reminisces. The panel, held as part of HLS’ 2020 Celebration of Pro Bono Week, included a closing statement by Gants’ wife, Northeastern University law professor Deborah Ramirez ’81, and was attended by their children Rachel ’20 and Michael, and by his brother, Fred Gants.

In an opening statement, John F. Manning ’85, Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law, called Gants a “living example of what lawyers can do to make our world better,” and singled out examples of his legacy. “He worked, for example, to eliminate a destructive and unfair system of mandatory minimum sentences, and to reform practices surrounding eyewitness identification. He also worked tirelessly to make the bar of the Commonwealth more diverse, more inclusive and more humane.” Just days before Gants’ passing, he received a report commissioned from HLS’ Criminal Justice Policy Program, which examined the racial disparities on the imposition of criminal punishment in Massachusetts. This report, Manning said, will have a lasting impact on criminal law reform.

Former HLS Dean Martha Minow, who moderated the panel, remembered Gants as “a beacon of decency and strength, both inside the judiciary and with everyone he encountered.” She noted significant work that Gants had done during the pandemic—securing legal protections and assistance for those facing loss of housing, and proposing legal solutions for domestic violence. “His constant efforts to make equal justice for all a reality stand as a lesson,” she said. “I was so lucky to work alongside him, and I mourn the loss of a truly magnificent human being, with an unshakable force for justice, truth and goodness.”

grid of headshots of speakers at event

[Top row, L-R] John F. Manning, Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and professor of law; Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor; Deval Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts; [Middle row] Margaret Marshall, former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; Rachael Rollins, Suffolk County District Attorney; Susan Finegan, co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission; [Bottom row] Kimberly Budd, associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; David Wilkins, Lester Kissel Professor of Law; Deborah Ramirez, professor of law, Northeastern University School of Law

The event was one of several that HLS is presenting to commemorate Gants, who died on Sept. 14 while recuperating from a heart attack. Two forthcoming events will center on issues that were central to Gants’ work: housing equity and criminal justice reform. The latter topic will be explored in “Eradicating Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System,” a panel that Clinical Professor Dehlia Umunna will moderate at noontime on Thursday. In November, HLS’ Center on the Legal Profession will honor Gants as part of their upcoming symposium on “Remote Courts and the Future of Justice.”

Governor Deval Patrick appointed Gants to the SJC in 2008 and elevated him to chief justice six years later. On Tuesday, he recalled what about Gants had impressed him. “I wanted someone who would see and hear and seek to understand the vulnerable … I wanted someone who would guide the court to opinions that were actually instructive to lower courts and lawyers, in plain language. But I didn’t realize I had a chance to get a mensch until I met Ralph.” This quality, he said, proved a legal as well as a personal strength. “Time after time, the American judiciary had stacked up precedent in favor of power and privilege. The mighty are affirmed and the meek are left back. The law and the courts cannot always fix that, but knowing they are the last resort, courts can resolve to give everyone a fair chance. That was Justice Gants, as a judge and as a person.”

Former Chief SJC Justice Margaret Marshall singled out a lasting part of Gants’ legacy: The blinking signs that one sees on virtually every highway in Massachusetts, giving a number to call for those needing help with rent. “As I traveled the highway this week, it was as if the chief were waving from above; ‘Do not grieve, the work continues.’” She also praised Gants’ skills as a writer of legal opinions. “His opinions are textbook examples of making sure they were clear enough to the litigants, other judges and the public; he taught through those opinions. Gants, she said, was more interested in seeing his work bear results than in taking credit. “The tangible results? Too many to mention. But remember those blinking lights.”

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins spoke of the inspiration she took from Gants, despite their difference in personal style. “There is no doubt that the chief justice and I led differently. He was measured, soft spoken, and careful. And I … well, we led differently. But however differently we communicated or presented, our commitment and urgency was shared.” She shared a personal story about reading a newspaper op-ed by a fellow DA, who disparaged her as a “social justice district attorney.” To which Gants responded to her, “Is the opposite of that a social injustice DA?” She took those as words to live by: “He knew that if you weren’t actively working to pursue justice, you were actively working to maintain social injustice.”

A friend since their days as HLS and Harvard Law Review co-editors, Professor David Wilkins ’80 gave one of the day’s most emotional tributes to both Gants and Ramirez. “I knew he was brilliant from our first conversation in the editors’ room. But it wasn’t until he married Debbie Ramirez ten years later that I also knew he was cool. She was a year behind us, and I remember her clearly as the brilliant, beautiful, firebrand president of what was then called the Chicano Law Students’ Association. When I found out they were getting married I said, ‘There must be even more to my old friend than I thought’.” Both, he said, have passed their passion as “drum majors for justice” on to their two children. “The future of the Ramirez Gants legacy is clearly in good hands.”

As Gants’ co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, Susan Finegan was one of the last to work with him. She noted that Gants devoted the last seven months of his life to social justice issues opened up by the pandemic, including self-represented litigants being forced to use remote court systems. “He became even more concerned with the looming eviction crisis, and the resulting economic recession. He described this crisis as the greatest access-to-justice challenge of our lifetime.” On the morning of his death, Finegan spoke with Gants to work on possible solutions. “I take some solace in the fact that he spent the last hours of his incredible life doing something he loved to do: Using the gift of his intellect and the privilege of his power as chief to help the many desperate people impacted by this pandemic.”

Gants was also a pleasure to have as a colleague, said Kimberly Budd, an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court who was just nominated by Gov. Charlie Baker to serve as chief justice. Budd described Gants’ methodical way of processing opinions, and the respect he showed for the SJC as a team of equals. “One of the things I think he was proud of was the fact that so many of our opinions have been unanimous. As a group of justices, we each have our own distinct personality. And when we talked about cases after an oral argument, we often had six different ideas of how it should turn out. As chief, Ralph would speak last, and there were times when he was able to weave all our ideas together into a coherent whole that we could all agree upon. And there were other times when his point of view was completely different from everything anyone else had said. But after hearing it, everyone would agree that he was exactly right.”

Closing out the hour, Ramirez offered a personal thanks to each of the participants, singling out the contributions they’d made to Gants’ life and work. “Harvard was such an important part of his life,” she said. “He would have been so pleased by today’s program.”