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New chief justice takes control at SJC

There was no speech and no applause.

On his first day presiding over the Supreme Judicial Court, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants treated his new role as though he had been sitting in the state’s highest judicial position for years.

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Gants, a 59-year-old former federal prosecutor, was elevated from associate justice to chief in July, replacing Roderick L. Ireland, who left the post after four years.

After a brief ceremony Tuesday morning that included Court Clerk Francis V. Kenneally handing him and newly appointed Justice Geraldine S. Hines scrolls instructing them to uphold the state’s Constitution, Gants thanked the court and quickly began calling cases.

Tuesday also marked the first time a black woman sat on the centuries-old court.

Hines, a child of the segregated South who became a civil rights attorney and appeals court judge in Massachusetts, was nominated by Governor Deval Patrick to fill the vacancy created by Ireland, who was the first black person appointed to the SJC.

Four of the six cases before the seven-member court centered on how eyewitness identification testimony is presented to juries. The lawyers, appealing convictions in criminal trials, including for murder, argued that the court needs to instruct judges to be clearer with juries about the frailties of witness identification.

One case involved a Cambridge man convicted for possession of child pornography after two teenagers said they saw him looking at child pornography at the city’s public library. None of the library staff were able to point to him as the culprit, and the teenagers only identified the defendant at trial, two years after the incident.

The case also raised questions about whether the judge in the case should have allowed prosecutors to tell the jury that the defendant had drawings of naked children in his cell.

The drawings were not of the victims in the child pornography found online.

Gants questioned whether that suggested to the jury that made him guilty of viewing child porn at the library.

“How is that different from saying, ‘He’s a pervert because he has drawings of children and therefore he’s the person who committed this crime?’ ” Gants asked.

Gants has said he wants the courts to handle cases more pragmatically, for example, by having defendants sentenced to drug counseling rather than prison.

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer. Michael Levenson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
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