Governor Deval Patrick on Thursday nominated Ralph D. Gants, a former federal prosecutor and current member of the Supreme Judicial Court, to be its chief justice, replacing Roderick L. Ireland, who is retiring in July.
After Patrick fills Gants’s seat in the coming weeks, he will have nominated five of the seven justices on the state high court, leaving a mark on the judiciary that will endure long after he leaves office in January.
Gants is a Lexington resident whose many decisions include a 2013 opinion declaring cigarettes “unreasonably dangerous” and another calling for higher standards on the use of eyewitness testimony. As chief justice, he would have broad influence over the direction of the high court as well as budgetary and management issues in the state’s vast system of criminal and civil courts.
At 59 years old, he could serve as chief justice for the next decade, until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.
At a State House press conference with Patrick, Gants, who has written many significant rulings in civil liberties and consumer protection cases, expounded on what he sees as three central challenges facing the court system.
The courts, he said, must ensure fair representation for all, particularly in probate, family, and housing courts, where many represent themselves and cannot speak English.
Gants said he wants courts to recognize their role as “problem solvers,” in part by the use of specialty courts designed to help veterans or those with substance abuse problems. And civil litigation, he said, is out of reach for many people, because they cannot afford the cost of a lawyer.
“I think what we’re looking for is not only fair and equal justice, but efficient and cost-effective justice,” Gants said. “I hope to be a part of that change.”
Patrick praised Gants for his “intellectual rigor and thoughtful jurisprudence.”
“He displays a devotion to justice and Constitutional rights and compassion for the people behind the problems, something enormously important to me, personally,” the governor said.
The nomination must be confirmed by the Governor’s Council, which approved Gants’s elevation to the SJC by a 6 to 2 vote in 2009, after Patrick nominated him to the court.
Gants was elevated to the bench in 1997, when Governor William F. Weld, a Republican, appointed to him to the Superior Court. Before that, he spent eight years as a federal prosecutor in Boston, serving under Weld when the former governor was US attorney. From 1981 to 1983, Gants was a special assistant to the director of the FBI.
“He’s just got a wonderful judicial temperament and manner about him, but never sacrifices his razor intellect and humor — a good combination in a judge,” Weld said.
Margaret H. Marshall, the former chief justice of the SJC, called Gants “one of the most thoughtful, hard-working, and careful justices with whom I have worked.”
“He’s not an ideologue,” Marshall said. “I couldn’t tell you which direction he was leaning when we came off the bench.”
Gants has written 120 majority decisions in his five years on the state’s highest court, said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Bar Association.
Healy described Gants as particularly incisive on issues inlvolving civil liberties and criminal defendants’ rights, and categorized his views as somewhere between moderate and to the left.
One of Gants’ most significant rulings, Healy said, was against the tobacco industry in 2013, when the SJC held that “cigarettes are an inherently defective and unreasonably dangerous product.”
“That had a national impact,” Healy said.
Gants was also known for his groundbreaking decisions on the Superior Court, where he set a new standard for the admission of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.
“It addressed the risks of inaccurate eyewitness testimony and the need for police protocol to identify those risks,” Healy said.
Gants also set a new legal process for subprime mortgage cases, shifting the burden to banks and lenders to prove that a loan was proper, rather than the borrower.
“It was a major shift of the burden, and it was a case cited throughout the country,” Healy said.
Some prosecutors expressed concerns when Gants was nominated to the SJC in 2008. They cited two SJC decisions in 2002 that found Gants did not use the correct standard of proof when rejecting a request to civilly commit two child molesters after they finished their sentences.
In one of the cases, the SJC ruled that Gants erred when he rejected the credibility of the state’s expert witness, then gave the defense lawyer articles about sexual recidivism authored by another expert and told him to submit them to bolster claims that his client was not dangerous.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael D. O’Keefe was among those who had voiced concern about Gants back then.
But on Thursday, O’Keefe said his worries had been allayed in 2010, when Gants wrote a decision upholding the murder conviction of Christopher M. McCowen, a trash collector found guilty of raping and murdering Christa Worthington, a Cape Cod fashion writer. Gants rejected allegations the jury was racially biased against McCowen, who is black.
“Gants wrote a very careful and thorough opinion respecting all of those issues, and if I needed my mind changed, that’s what it did with me,” O’Keefe said in an interview. “I think he’s a very good choice by the governor. He’s very intellectually equipped for the job.”
Ireland’s ascension to the position was historic, as he was the first African-American to be named chief justice.
His departure leaves the seven-member court with only one other minority justice, Fernande R. V. Duffly, who is Asian-American. Duffly is one of three women on the court.
Ireland will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in December and had told Patrick he would step down effective July 25, so that the governor could appoint his replacement by the start of the court’s new term in September.
Patrick has not yet named Gants’s replacement on the court.