When he died at age 65 in September, Chief Justice Ralph Gants left unfinished an ambitious agenda aimed at ending racial disparities and improving access in the judicial system.
Now, the state’s legal community is coming together to finish his work.
Gants’s friends and family members, in coordination with the Massachusetts Bar Association and its affiliated foundation, are launching the Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants Access to Justice Fund. They’ve raised $100,000 so far, and are hoping to gather much more now that they are going public with the mission. The fund, which will be managed through the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, could start distributing grants as soon as the first quarter of 2021.
The Justice fund will distribute money to help three related causes: improving racial equality in the legal system, pursuing a more holistic approach to criminal justice, and expanding access to legal representation.
“My husband really worked his heart out, trying to rid the criminal justice system of racism and trying to improve access to justice,” said Deborah Ramirez, Gants’s wife and a law professor at Northeastern University.
The Supreme Judicial Court judge died on Sept. 14 while recovering from a heart attack. Ramirez remembers on that day her husband was busy shepherding a task force to address a looming eviction crisis, while developing a response to issues raised by a Harvard Law School report on racial disparities in rates of imprisonment. Gants commissioned the Harvard study after hearing about stark differences between the rates at which Black and Latino residents are imprisoned in Massachusetts compared with white residents.
Former governor Deval Patrick stopped by the Gants house a few days after his death, to console family members. Speaking in their backyard, Patrick told Ramirez’s children, Rachel and Michael Gants, that their father’s quest wasn’t over. He stressed the importance of honoring his legacy.
“He said, ‘You know, justice is a relay race,’” Deborah Ramirez said. “’None of us finish the work . . . You, your mom, and your community can pick up the baton he dropped, and continue the race.’ We thought the best way to honor him would be to continue this work. This fund is our way of doing that.”
Susan Finegan, chair of the pro bono committee at law firm Mintz, said the fund organizers haven’t established a formal fund-raising goal yet. An advisory committee of friends and associates from Gants’s circle will pick the eventual recipients of the grant money.
“We’re hoping we’ll get broad based support at all different levels,” said Finegan, who served as cochair with Gants of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission. “He impacted so many people with his work . . . We’re almost obliged to keep moving forward on all these fronts.”
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.