Chief Justice Ralph Gants has passed away at the age of 65. Justice Gants served over the Supreme Judicial Court since 2014, and was a well-respected judge and advocate for racial justice. GBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Northeastern University law professor and GBH News legal analyst Daniel Medwed about Chief Justice Gants and his impact on the Commonwealth. The transcription below has been edited for clairty.
Joe Mathieu: Condolences, to start off with here. This is a pretty major story, and as I mentioned, you knew the chief justice personally.
Daniel Medwed: An amazing man, Joe. Everyone's talked about his quick mind and quick wit, his warmth [and] his ability to empathize with people, which is something that's seldom seen from a person at his lofty perch.
But what I really remember was his integrity. That's the word I associate with Ralph Gants. Just a brief war story: about five years ago, I was invited into a conference at Northeastern to talk about eyewitness identification reform, which was an issue near and dear to his heart, to make sure that those procedures were more accurate and just to criminal suspects. And our negotiations over the talk were amazing because he was very concerned about the appearance of impropriety if he got a free lunch or any chachkies from Northeastern. And if I recall, the negotiations went down to the wire over bottled water. That's the type of person he was. He was never going to accept a gift for fear that it would appear inappropriate. He was truly the most honorable justice I've ever met.
Mathieu: Boy, that's quite a statement. He was appointed as a trial judge, Daniel, by Governor Weld. He was elevated to the Supreme Judicial Court by Governor Patrick. An "R" and "D". How would you characterize him politically? Or could you?
Medwed: It's hard for me to characterize him because he defied political categorization. If he belonged to a political party, it's a party known as "justice," because his decisions were neither to the right nor to the left, but they were fair, beautifully articulated and well reasoned. He certainly is associated with progressive reforms. You mentioned at the top his concern about racial disparities in our system. He was concerned about criminal justice reform when the current movement was really a twinkle in the eye, well back into his early days. And this is somewhat of a contrast with his pedigree. If you look at him on paper, you might think law and order. Here's a man with two Harvard degrees, he worked for FBI Director William Webster, he was a longtime U.S. attorney [and] he was a partner at a private law firm. But he didn't tilt to the right. He tilted, if anything, to the left, especially when it came to showing concern for the little person, for the poor and the disenfranchized, and for people of color in the commonwealth.
Mathieu: I mentioned the outpouring. You expect to get statements from the governor and from other elected officials. The one that especially caught my eye, though, came from the Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins who, of course, has very strong feelings about racial justice and about criminal justice reform. And she wrote, "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." That's from Rachael Rollins, Daniel.
Medwed: I think District Attorney Rollins really captured him. He was concerned about everyone. He was concerned about all of us. And it wasn't just in his judicial opinions, it was in his everyday dealings. If you encountered him at an event, he made you feel like you were the only person in the room. He would listen to you [and] he would talk to you. He was fully engaged in that conversation over the course of it, even though you knew he was incredibly busy [and] had a million things going on. It was a very special characteristic and one that, I think, is seldom seen.