The death of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants on Monday sent shock waves through a legal and political community that recalled the longtime jurist as a powerful proponent of social justice. In his decades-long career in Massachusetts' legal system, Gants was outspoken in support of a wide range of progressive causes, notably leading the charge to drop mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately imposed on people of color.
Gants died at age 65, days after court officials reported he planned to partially resume his duties as the leader of the state’s highest court after suffering a heart attack that led to his hospitalization on Sept. 4.
“Chief Justice Gants was an unparalleled leader on civil liberties and individual rights with a deeply embedded concern for the humanity of the justice system,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association. “The legal community finds itself in a state of shock."
When Gants took his seat on the SJC bench in 2009, he had a strong reputation for rooting out corruption in the criminal justice system and advocating for second chances for those convicted of crimes. In the 11 years that followed, he upheld that legacy on the bench and off, those he worked with said.
Gants was a staunch opponent of the state’s mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, which he said resulted in overly punitive sentences and undercut efforts at racial justice.
“We are committed to the principle that a sentence should be no more severe than necessary to achieve the sentencing purposes of punishment, deterrence, protection of public safety, and rehabilitation,” Gants said in his annual State of the Judiciary speech in 2016.
At times, his stance on sentencing put him at odds with prosecutors. At a 2015 State House hearing on mandatory minimums, a panel of district attorneys faced off with Gants, saying proposed reforms would go too far in a state that already imprisoned people at a far lower rate than the country as a whole. Gants also faced criticism from some prosecutors for his opposition to lifetime parole for sex offenders, a practice the SJC ruled unconstitutional in 2014.
In 2018, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a criminal justice reform bill that did away with some mandatory minimum guidelines.
Beyond sentencing reform, Gants also spoke out in favor of providing pathways to stability for formerly incarcerated people and increasing legal protections and assistance for tenants facing eviction.
“Until we create a world in which all who need counsel in civil cases have access to counsel, we must do all we can to make the court system more understandable and accessible for the many litigants who must represent themselves,” he said in his 2019 State of the Judiciary address.
Gants’s attention to social justice extended beyond his role as chief justice. In 2015, as anti-Muslim rhetoric intensified during the presidential campaign, Gants reached out to the Society of Boston Cultural Center, New England’s largest mosque, to offer support.
“I am here to assure you that you do not stand alone,” he said in a December 2015 speech at the mosque. “You have a Constitution and laws to protect your right to practice your religion, to protect you from discrimination . . . and to protect you from acts of violence that may be committed against you because of your religion or your nation of origin.”
“It feels like we’ve lost a real champion for justice,” said Yusufi Vali, director of the city’s Office for Immigrant Advancement. From 2012 to 2019, when Vali was executive director of the Islamic Society, Gants addressed the mosque three times and became a trusted friend of community leaders, he recalled.
“He really cared about rights, and particularly rights for those who have been disenfranchised in this country,” Vali said. “I just saw a real generosity of spirit on his part and a person who felt it was his responsibility to make sure that [everyone’s] rights would be upheld and protected.”
Even in the last days of his storied career and life, Gants’s commitment to justice for the marginalized was on display.
Last week, Harvard Law School researchers published a study Gants commissioned in 2016 to take a detailed look at the role of race in the state’s criminal justice system, from charging to sentencing. Among other disparities, the report found that Black and Latino people convicted of crimes face longer sentences than their white counterparts convicted of similar offenses.
“He took a broader and more prophetic view of what a chief justice could do,” said Lewis Finfer, co-director of the Massachusetts Community Action Network, an advocacy group that communicated regularly with Gants and his aides. “He went above and beyond his role to advance justice."
“It’s a big loss," Finfer said, "He had a big life and a big legacy.”