Supreme Judicial Court chief justice nominee Ralph Gants on Thursday pledged to improve access to justice for all residents and to focus the courts on “problem solving” and sentencing practices that both punish criminals and reduce instances of reoffending.
Listen above to a report from WBUR’s David Boeri.
Gants, who has served on the top court since 2009 after being nominated by Gov. Deval Patrick from the Superior Court, would succeed Chief Justice Roderick Ireland if confirmed by the Governor’s Council. The council will likely schedule a hearing for Gants the next time it meets.
Ireland, who did not attend Thursday’s announcement press conference, plans to step down on July 25 as he approaches the mandatory retirement age of 70. By tapping a sitting member of the court for the chief justice role, Patrick will likely get to make one more appointment before he leaves office, but Patrick said he would wait until Gants is confirmed to name a successor.
“On the bench, he is known by judges and members of the bar as an intellectually rigorous, pragmatic, fair and hardworking jurist,” Patrick said. “To members of the court staff who interact with him on a daily basis, he is known as gracious and humble. Each of these qualities and both perspectives equip him well to serve as chief justice.”
Gants was born in New Rochelle, New York and earned his bachelors’ degree from Harvard University. He went on to earn a degree in criminology from Cambridge University in England and a law degree from Harvard before clerking for United States District Court Judge Eugene Nickerson.
Over the course of a legal career that has spanned 33 years – including 16 as a judge – Gants has worked as an assistant to the director of the F.B.I., as a United States attorney and as a defense lawyer focused on white collar litigation with the Boston law firm Palmer & Dodge.
Former Gov. William Weld appointed Gants to the Superior Court bench in 1997. In a questionnaire for that position, Gants wrote that the use of mandatory minimum sentences “breeds unfairness” and can result in unnecessarily harsh punishments.
Gants said that as chief justice he would be committed to maintaining the progress being made by the Massachusetts Trial Court system on access, “problem solving,” and efficiency in the civil justice arena.
“I see three philosophical changes happening in the court system today. One is the recognition of the importance of access to justice,” he said.
Gants said an increasing number of people appearing in probate and family courts or housing courts are self-represented or in need of counsel. Others don’t speak English.
“The ability to help individuals to help themselves and to find counsel where they need counsel is an incredibly important part of what we do,” he said. Gants co-chairs the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, as well as the SJC’s Standing Committee on Model Jury Instructions on Homicide.
Endorsing the judicial system’s move toward expanding the use of specialty courts for veterans, drug cases and mental health, Gants said the Trial Court has increasingly begun to recognize its role as a “problem solver” in people’s lives.
“We need to make sure that we provide sentences which not only provide appropriate punishment but also permit the greatest possibility that that individual will not be coming back into the criminal justice system after he is released from custody,” Gants said.
Finally, Gants said the court must do what it can to make civil justice fair, efficient and cost effective for those who may lack the financial resources to hire high-priced attorneys.
“I’m excited,” Associate Justice Margot Botsford told the News Service. “I think he is brilliant. He seems to me to have enormous energy, intelligence and passion about the administration of justice and increasing access.”
Bostford and Justices Francis Spina, Fernande Duffly and Barbara Lenk attended the announcement on Thursday, along with some employees of the Trial Court and members of Gants’ family. He is married with two children. Ireland and Justice Robert Cordy did not attend.
Patrick has already appointed four of the court’s seven justices – Gants, Lenk, Botsford and Duffly. If Gants is confirmed as chief justice, Patrick will get to nominate a fifth justice to replace him once Ireland steps down in July.
“I’m proud of the quality of the appointees and I’ve had that quality affirmed by any number of lawyers and litigants. These are really, really strong, very capable people who understand their role as servant leaders,” Patrick told reporters.
Massachusetts Bar Association Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin Healy said residents of Massachusetts would be “well served” with Gants in the chief justice’s position.
“Justice Gants has worked his way up from the trenches of law practice and has the strong intellectual firepower to boldly lead the court,” Healy said in a statement.