On sunny days, Ralph D. Gants’s second-floor office in the John Adams Courthouse is awash in richly stained wood, neatly arranged furniture, and natural light streaming in from the floor-to-ceiling windows along its east wall. On days the state’s top judge is writing — and they’re often — it’s bathed in something else: paper.
The Supreme Judicial Court’s chief justice, Gants will ask for transcripts and amicus briefs in their physical form. He has two computer screens, but the documents make it easier to track page numbers, meaning his desk can quickly sprout a small skyline of rubber bands, folders, and dead trees.
“There’s a small figure behind the files,” says Jennifer Donahue, the SJC’s public information officer, describing the common scene.
Of course, in the Massachusetts legal world, a small figure Gants is not. He leads the storied, seven-justice body which lays claim to being the oldest continuous appellate court in the Western hemisphere. Bound volumes of SJC decisions dating to September 1804 sit within an arm’s reach (and up a step-ladder). And on this warm mid-May morning, manila folders and other papers are placed in neat rows along the L-shaped desk looking out onto the two-room suite.
“I’m not somebody who cleans off the front of his desk every night before I leave,” Gants says.
A tour of the office, however, provides a lot more insight beyond the law:
When former Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall saw how Gants had decorated one corner of his office, she exclaimed: “You’ve turned this place into a locker room!”
“And that’s when I had even more in that corner,” Gants notes.
Today, it is home to six baseballs, a framed Sports Illustrated cover, three bobbleheads, and a photo of Gants tipping his hat to the crowd on the July 2014 night he threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park. It’s a sports collection, yes, but one with deeper meaning sprinkled throughout.
At the center is a trophy honoring the New England Over the Hill Soccer League’s Spring 2016 champions in the over-56 division. It belongs to Gants’s team, which plays every Sunday during the spring and fall. Gants’s teammates wanted him to keep the cup in his office.
“I’m still playing on that team,” he says, “but I’m not likely this year to be getting a second cup.”
Above it, are two baseball-centric treasures. To the left hangs a print of a 1886 joint team photo of the Boston Beaneaters and New York Giants that’s considered the first recorded appearance of someone giving the middle finger. A player stands in the upper-left-hand corner, his left hand unmistakably flipping the bird. Gants received the photo as a gift from a former law clerk after he had written a 2012 decision about whether giving someone the middle finger constitutes a true threat.
On the right is a framed copy of a program from the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians. During Game 1, center fielder Willie Mays made his famous over-the-shoulder catch of a Vic Wertz fly ball.
“I was born literally at that moment,” Gants says. “My father claims that he was never going to forgive me for having missed The Catch.”
There are busts, portraits, and mementos of former chief justices and associate justices dotting both Gants’s office and the adjoining rooms. But the two judicial portraits he personally hung above his desk are of judges who never sat on Massachusetts’ highest court.
On the left is Louis Brandeis, who, Gants notes, did clerk for a SJC chief justice; on the right, Thurgood Marshall. When Gants is seated, it appears as if he’s sandwiched directly between the two former US Supreme Court justices.
“Brandeis was always focused on facts, always focused on the practical consequence of the law on how things play out,” Gants says of choosing that portrait. Marshall, he says, exemplified courage. “The more you learn about Marshall, the more you marvel at him.”
Amid the brown wood that dominates the office, the pops of red, green, and yellow are difficult to miss, even on the very top shelf. That’s where Gants keeps more than a half-dozen masks — all of Central America, South American, or African origin — that he collected over several years during the 1980s.
They include an angry fanged creature with skulls ringing its forehead, what appears to be a yellow-eared oxen, and a two-faced man, his cheeks merged together at the center. Most, if not all, came from a shop in Dennis that Gants says he would frequent during Cape vacations to fulfill a hobby borne from his work as a federal prosecutor.
“When I was in the US attorney’s office, I did public corruption cases, and I became quite fond of masks because everybody who I was involved with prosecuting put on quite a different face from the face I was prosecuting,” he says.
He adds with a laugh, “And they are here because my wife will not let me put them in the house.”
A who’s who
A few shelves below, Gants keeps another reminder of his time in the US attorney’s office — a 1984 staff picture. Front and center is William Weld, the then-US attorney who later became governor and is now running for president. To his left is Robert Mueller, now of Mueller Report fame. There also is Mark L. Wolf, now a senior federal judge in Boston; Donald Stern, who later became US attorney in Boston; and Brackett Denniston III, who would serve as chief legal counsel for Governor Weld and then as general counsel at General Electric.
“I’m stuck there,” Gants says, pointing into the black-and-white photo. “In the back.”
A gift when he was named chief justice, a commemorative gavel rests at the front of Gants’s desk, providing a familiar symbol of the job. But to Gants, that is truly all it is. He says he’s never had a practical need for a gavel in his more than 20 years on the bench, including more than 11 in superior court.
“Never had one, never used one,” he says. “Generally in most settings, if you do things well, you don’t need to bang” a gavel.