September 16, 2020

The sudden death of Ralph Gants, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, is a profound loss for the legal community and for everyone who relies on the law to do justice. And in the wake of such a loss, it is incumbent on us, and our leaders, to mitigate it.

Chief Justice Gants had all the qualities you’d want in a judge: he cared about people seeking justice; he truly listened; and he had the intellect to cut to the core of every legal issue.

He was also funny and warm. Although many of my interactions with the Chief Justice came through briefing and arguing cases, I also had the good fortune of running into him from time to time in professional gatherings. He always had a joke and some words of encouragement. He wanted people to do well, and to do good. It was a rare combination of intellect and empathy, arising from a recognition that the law is fundamentally about people.

This focus on people might explain why access to justice was an overarching theme to Chief Justice Gants’ work. In a groundbreaking 2017 opinion in the ACLU’s litigation on the Hinton Lab scandal, which led to the single largest dismissal of wrongful convictions in U.S. history, Chief Justice Gants emphasized the need to ensure meaningful access to the courts for victims of government misconduct. In 2018, Gants authored a landmark opinion seeking to ensure access to the courts for pro se and low-income litigants facing eviction. And just last week, he authored an important opinion about the rights of criminal defendants to access exculpatory evidence of police misconduct.

But the role of Chief Justice is larger than the sum of the Court’s opinions, and so Gants’ focus on access to justice was not limited to case law. He was a champion for civil legal aid, including an “Access to Justice Fellows Program” that pairs recently retired lawyers and judges with nonprofits in need of legal services. It was Chief Justice Gants who in 2016, after the Court ruled against an ACLU challenge to mandatory minimum sentencing, announced a study of racial disparities in the criminal legal system. The publication of that study earlier this month is an important part of Gants’ legacy.

And in December 2015, shortly after then-candidate Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Chief Justice Gants spoke at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. In admirable contrast to certain federal courts that have been silent on racism’s role in America today, Gants explained:

I asked to speak with you today because I know that this is a difficult time for persons who practice the Islamic faith in this country. And I am here to assure you that you do not stand alone: you have a Constitution and laws to protect your right to practice your religion, to protect you from discrimination and the denial of your equal rights, and to protect you from acts of violence that might be committed because of your religion or your nation of origin. And as the Chief Justice of the highest court in Massachusetts, as one who has sworn to uphold that Constitution, and whose job it is to interpret its meaning, and, where appropriate, to enforce it, it is only fitting that I be the one to bring you that message.

In each of these examples, a different Chief Justice could have made a different choice. And if they had, we would all be less free, and our legal system would be less fair. For that reason, as a lawyer who has devoted most of my career to the cause of justice, it is difficult for me to put into words what the loss of Chief Justice Gants means.

But I can say this: we honor Chief Justice Gants’ legacy not by mourning it, but by continuing it. This a dangerous time for the American legal system. The rule of law, and the protections it affords the least powerful members of our communities, are in serious jeopardy. We need people who will enforce the rights of every person to access the guarantees in our laws, and thus to access to justice. We need people like Chief Justice Gants.

A decision will be made about who should replace Gants as Chief Justice. Public officials will face choices about whether to expand or contract access to justice. And all of us will have opportunities to bring both intellect and empathy to the work we do. All of these choices should be judged by the standards that Chief Justice Gants has set for us.

Matthew Segal is the legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.