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SJC Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, a fearless advocate for racial justice, dies at 65

Ralph Gants was the state’s first Jewish chief justice.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, whose determination to provide equal justice to all led him to commission a recent study of racial disparities in the court system, has died, the court announced Monday.

Justice Gants, the first Jewish chief justice in the court’s 328-year history, was 65 and had been hospitalized Sept. 4 following a heart attack.

“This is a tragedy,” said Margaret H. Marshall, a former SJC chief justice.

Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement that Justice Gants “led the Supreme Judicial Court with intelligence, integrity and distinction” and that “his legacy as a judge and as chief justice is profound, and he will be sorely missed.”


Justice Gants once wrote that each day brought the challenge of balancing “the sometimes conflicting obligations of following the law and ensuring fairness.”

As head of the state’s highest court, with oversight over the entire court system, he also shouldered administrative responsibilities that became suddenly and unpredictably more complex in unprecedented ways during the coronavirus pandemic.

He took on that extra work while continuing to write opinions that drew widespread praise for their eloquence.

“He was a teacher in his writing,” said Barbara A. Lenk, an SJC associate justice and longtime colleague. “He was a brilliant thinker, a remarkable administrator, and one of the greatest chief justices that the Supreme Judicial Court has ever been privileged to have.”

Justice Gants “cared passionately about the interests of the public, especially people who needed to have access to the courts,” Marshall said. “His interest was always with the public: ‘Are the courts serving the public?’ That meant litigators, lawyers, and people who went to the court to obtain justice.”

To that end he asked Harvard Law School to conduct a study of racial disparities in the state’s courts. The results, released just days ago, showed that Black and Latino defendants constitute a disproportionately high percentage of the state’s criminal cases and receive longer sentences than white defendants.


Though convalescing from a heart attack, Justice Gants called the report “a must read for anyone who is committed to understanding the reasons for such disparities and taking action to end them.”

“He was fearless about facing historic injustices,” said Martha Minow, former dean of Harvard Law School.

She recalled that four years ago, Justice Gants called her “and said, ‘We have to face the racial disparities in our system. What can we do?’ And that led to the report.”

That Justice Gants initiated such an assessment long before the current nationwide protests against racial injustice was characteristic of his approach to the judiciary, she added.

“He always put humanity and fairness at the center of his dealings,” Minow said. “This is a pioneering and critical report that we hope will inspire other works.”

Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said in a statement that “Chief Justice Gants was more than a skilled and thoughtful jurist. He was a deeply compassionate and wonderful person who dedicated his career to serving the community — every member of the community — through his work to create a more equitable legal system.”

Justice Gants “was an exceptional leader,” said Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan.

“As both his friend and colleague, I was always impressed by his compassion and empathy,” Ryan added. “He fully appreciated the highly personal and human impact of the work he was doing every day. It was these attributes which allowed him to accomplish so much and to have such a profound impact.”


Marshall noted that he also was highly respected nationally and “was emerging as one of the great leaders” of a national association of chief judges.

“He seemed to be endless in his energy, and yet in addition to that, he wrote beautiful judicial decisions, and he led the court during a time of enormous changeover,” she added.

Retirements have brought a majority of new associate justices to the SJC in his six-year tenure.

Last week, Justice Gants disclosed that he had suffered a heart attack. Even though surgery was required to insert two stents, he said then that he expected to “resume full duties, albeit initially on a limited basis.”

As recently as Friday, he had told colleagues that he expected to participate in the SJC’s decision about Baker’s emergency authority amid the pandemic, according to Associate Justice Frank M. Gaziano.

“The legal community finds itself in a state of shock as word quickly spreads of the untimely passing of Chief Justice Gants,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association, who added that Gants was “an avid soccer player.”

Justice Gants “was a learned, rigorous, serious, and sincere jurist who faithfully honored constitutional principles and also saw the people behind the docket numbers,” former governor Deval Patrick said in a statement.

Patrick, who had appointed Justice Gants to the SJC and elevated him to chief justice in 2014, added that “he was also wicked funny, taking his work but never himself too seriously.”


Indeed, after Justice Gants took the oath of office as chief justice, he thanked Patrick for appointing “not only the first Jewish chief justice, but also the first chief justice to play soccer in the Over the Hill Soccer League.”

Ralph Dreyfus Gants was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1954, a son of Gustav Gants and Helaine Dreyfus Gants.

He graduated from Mamaroneck High School, just outside New York City, and attended Harvard University, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1976.

Justice Gants graduated in 1980 from Harvard Law School, where he was notes editor for the Harvard Law Review.

In the early 1980s, he was a special assistant to then-FBI Director William H. Webster before joining the US Attorney’s Office in Boston, where Justice Gants led the Public Corruption Division.

“He was a fine human being,” said US District Judge Mark L. Wolf, who was deputy US attorney when Justice Gants was hired. “Very smart, of course, but extremely caring.”

Former governor William Weld, who was then US attorney, recalled that Justice Gants was “fair and straight,” and Weld praised his prosecution of a case involving more than 200 arson fires in Eastern Massachusetts in the 1980s.

Justice Gants subsequently went into private practice, rising to partner at the firm Palmer & Dodge. Weld appointed him to the Superior Court bench in 1997.


In 1988, Justice Gants married Deborah A. Ramirez, with whom he had worked in the US Attorney’s Office. Their children are Rachel Ramirez Gants and Michael Ramirez Gants.

Deborah Ramirez, a professor of law at Northeastern University School of Law, founded the Justice Bridge program at the University of Massachusetts School of Law to connect new lawyers with clients of modest means.

Complete information on other survivors and plans for a memorial service were not immediately available.

In the SJC office of Justice Gants, paperwork and volumes of the court’s decisions vied for space with sports memorabilia — baseballs, a framed Sports Illustrated cover, and a photo of the chief justice himself, tipping his cap after throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park one night in July 2014.

In the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class, Justice Gants wrote that his children “have been a great blessing and a constant source of humility. Both show no reluctance to point out that I never did and never will play second base for the Red Sox.”

Justice Gants served on the Superior Court bench for more than 11 years before being sworn in as an SJC associate justice in January 2009.

“I have always had the highest regard for him as a person, a lawyer, and a judge who cared deeply about ensuring that our system of justice was indeed just and fair to everyone,” Robert J. Cordy, a retired SJC associate justice, told the Globe in an e-mail.

Justice Gants “spent a great deal of time reaching out to the communities,” Marshall said, “He probably did more community outreach than almost anyone I can think of in the judicial branch over the years.”

“Particularly striking to me was the way he made the courthouse the host of public events about the history of justice in this country and around the world,” Minow said.

In 2001, while he was still a Superior Court judge, and years before he took on the enormous responsibility of administering the state’s highest court, Justice Gants believed he had found his calling.

He wrote that he welcomed his work’s daily challenges — “the need to make decisions with too little time and information; the sheer unpredictability of a hard-fought trial; and, most of all, the aspiration to do justice in every case.”

John R. Ellement and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.