“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Words from the Torah often quoted but not nearly as often taken to heart.
Ralph Gants took them to heart.
I’ll leave it for his fellow jurists and legal scholars to analyze the body of work the late chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court leaves behind.
I know only this: Justice Gants was a mensch — one of the good guys who throughout his career lived his faith, seeking in his own way to follow the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam, to “repair the world,” or at least a small piece of it.
As he put it in his first State of the Judiciary address, in 2015, “In our courts, we seek to repair the world, sometimes even save the world, one person at a time. What that means is that our courts will step up to the plate and seek to address the challenging problems that come before us.”
And, during the five years that would follow, that is exactly what he did.
The Harvard Law School report on racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system released just last week was ordered up by Gants four years ago — long before the killing of George Floyd, in May, brought thousands of people into the streets to protest racial injustice. Today it serves as a fitting bookend to a career spent making life in this commonwealth a little more fair, a little more just for those caught up in the justice system.
Gants was in many ways the perfect leader during these past turbulent months as he guided the court through the twin pandemics of the deadly coronavirus and institutional racism.
With the pandemic shutdown, courts had to be closed to the public, jury trials were halted so as not to endanger those who work in the court system or the thousands of people who enter the state’s 99 courthouses on a daily basis. And yet while buildings were closed, justice had to prevail on issues that could not wait.
“We know many are being hurt: defendants in custody awaiting trial, crime victims awaiting closure to their ordeal, and children in limbo awaiting custody or adoption decisions, to name only a few. And we know we must do what we can to limit their pain,” Gants wrote in a letter to the Massachusetts Bar Association at the time.
Using an ever-evolving patchwork of audio conferences, and finally entering the Zoom era just last week, the SJC dealt with such pressing issues as the release of defendants awaiting trial in prison — where social distancing isn’t possible. The use — or overuse — of bail for those charged with nonviolent crimes had long been an issue near to the chief justice’s heart.
Election-related issues — reducing the number of signatures required to get on the ballot, deciding that the law meant what it said about mail-in primary ballots having to arrive at election departments by Election Day — were also heard and resolved quickly by the high court.
And when the killing of George Floyd tore at the very fabric of the criminal justice system, the seven justices of the SJC, under Gants’s leadership, released an unprecedented statement of intent:
“As members of the legal community, we need to reexamine why, too often, our criminal justice system fails to treat African-Americans the same as white Americans, and recommit ourselves to the systemic change needed to make equality under the law an enduring reality for all. This must be a time not just of reflection but of action.”
The letter also spoke about the “difficult conversations” that lie ahead.
It is beyond sad that Ralph Gants won’t be here to lead those conversations.
It is tragic that his voice was stilled just when it is needed most.
But that duty to “repair the world” — the duty he took so to heart — should live on in every life he touched. That too should be part of his legacy.
Rachelle G. Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.