The chief justice of the state's Supreme Judicial Court Ralph Gants died this week at 65 after suffering a heart attack earlier this month. Northeastern University Law Professor and GBH News Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed discussed Gants' life and legacy with GBH All Things Considered Host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: I should really start by passing on my condolences, because you knew Chief Justice Gants. He was 65 years old. This has to be quite a shock.
Daniel Medwed: Oh, it's a huge shock. What a wonderful man. When I think of Ralph Gants, I just think of integrity. If you don't mind, I'd love to share a war story. Last year, I was pitching two of my top students to him for clerkships, to serve as his clerk. He called me on a Saturday — and the chief justice doesn't usually call a lowly law professor on a Saturday — because he wanted to figure out which one was the better candidate. I told him I couldn't pick. It was like picking between my two children, they're both incredibly talented students. And so in a Solomonic, or really Gantsian fashion — I want that word to trend — Gants gave both of them jobs. I mean, that's what he was all about. He was a warm, brilliant, and witty man who will be sorely missed.
Rath: He was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court as an associate justice in 2009. That was by then Gov. Deval Patrick. He became chief justice in 2014. How would you describe or define the Gants court?
Medwed: It's so interesting, because he was originally appointed as a trial court judge by Gov. Weld. So this is somebody who was appointed and promoted by Gov. Weld, Gov. Patrick. He was really a remarkable man who really defied political characterization. He was a former prosecutor, and one might think that because he was a former prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney, that he might be somewhat law and order. But he was really perhaps the most progressive chief justice when it came to criminal justice reform, and he was pressing for criminal justice reform at a time — five, six years ago — when it wasn't as salient as it is now. He, in fact, took the leadership role in advocating for eyewitness identification reforms in Massachusetts. Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest cause of wrongful convictions across the country, it appears in about 70 percent of documented convictions of innocent people. The chief justice set up a task force and issued a number of opinions really reforming our procedures to enhance accuracy. He also was a major opponent of mandatory minimum sentencing, very harsh sentencing policies. So I think at bottom, he really defied political characterization. He was just a fair man who called it as he saw it and always exhibited principles and integrity in everything he did.
Rath: On the other side, keeping to the theme of being hard to categorize, are there other examples in the other direction? Generally people have this idea of Massachusetts courts as being progressive kind of across the board. Were there things that were surprising about Gants in terms of going the other way at times?
Medwed: Absolutely. So I think one example that comes to mind is he issued a rather centrist opinion in the Annie Dookhan and drug crime lab scandal cases that some people on the left felt he didn't quite go far enough in granting relief. But his opinion, when you unpacked it, was very measured and well-reasoned. And to some extent, going back to my point about Solomonic or Gantsian wisdom, that's often how he approached things. He tried to come up with an artful solution that was both fair and accurate and advanced justice, but also took other considerations into account. He really had this capacity to see things from all perspectives, which was very rare, I think. It's all too rare, especially in our increasingly polarized world.
Rath: In all these examples you're talking about, it sounds like an individual who is applying real-world sensibility to the abstract letter of the law.
Medwed: I think that's right. What's amazing about him is he was such a scholar. He was such a brilliant jurist, an incredibly accomplished law student and lawyer. As I said, he was at the U.S. Attorney's office, he was a partner at a very prominent law firm called Palmer & Dodge, he worked for William Webster at the FBI. He had this incredibly illustrious and quite erudite legal career, but he was very pragmatic. He used his experiences on the ground to influence and inform his decisions. One other thing that I just want to mention, because I think it was so remarkable — he issued a great opinion about three years ago on the felony murder rule, which is a very harsh rule that basically says if you commit a dangerous crime like robbery and a person inadvertently dies, you could be branded a murderer, you could be charged with murder. He wrote this very tasteful and artful opinion suggesting that in Massachusetts, we shouldn't have that harsh rule, that we should have more evidence of the intent to commit murder before we label someone, in fact, a murderer. Just an amazing jurist and an even better human being.
Rath: So it turns out now that one of Gants' last big official acts was to commission this report on racial equality that we've recently been talking about in the criminal justice system. A report very much of its moment. He wouldn't have planed for that to be the capstone of his career, but is it pretty emblematic of Gants?
Medwed: Well put. I think it's very emblematic, it's absolutely fitting, because he cared very much about justice, and he defined it in a very thoughtful and nuanced way as justice for everybody: people of color, the poor, the dispossessed. He was so fair-minded and so committed to that very concept. I do love the idea that that is maybe the last act that he's associated with. I think emblematic is the perfect word.
Rath: Often judges can be pretty remote, up in their ivory tower, so to speak. But Gants was pretty public, pretty plugged in locally, and fun.
Medwed: Absolutely. He felt that his role as the chief justice was to communicate with the public as the top jurist in the commonwealth. He had an audience and he wanted the people to know what he was thinking, what the court was doing. Consider what the SJC has done with respect to the coronavirus. He's been very transparent, and I hate to use the past-tense, but he was very transparent in discussing what the court was going to do when it wanted to reopen the courthouse. What types of hearings would be held through video conferencing platforms? Which ones would be held in person? I wouldn't say he was a populist in the sense that he was a person of the people, but he cared very much for communicating to the people of the commonwealth and being as transparent as possible. He also had a great sense of humor. When he was appointed to become chief justice back in 2014, he got a lot of attention for being the first Jewish chief justice, and his response was to say he was also the first chief justice who played for the Over-the-Hill soccer team out in Lexington, which was a group of soccer players over the age of 50. He was very proud of his soccer prowess.