Honoring Chief Justice Ralph Gants

by Hon. Jay Blitzman (Ret.)

Viewpoint

Celebrating the visionary legacy of Chief Justice Ralph Gants demands consideration of his commitment to access to justice and achieving racial and ethnic equity, particularly for marginalized communities. The Chief understood the need to address issues involving youth through a developmentally appropriate lens and the reality that many children and families are affected or involved in both child welfare and juvenile justice systems.   

In his keynote address at the Second Annual Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Summit on March 16, 2015, less than a year after becoming Chief, Justice Gants emphasized that sentences should be proportionate, no greater than necessary, and designed to help the offender “get past the past.”[1]  “In medicine, there is a principle that a doctor should inflict no more pain and furnish no more medication than is necessary to treat the patient, and we need to act on a comparable principle in sentencing.” In his annual State of the Judiciary address in October 2015, Chief Justice Gants amplified his previous observations by noting that, “in a criminal case, problem-solving means not only adjudicating the question of guilt or innocence regarding crimes already committed; it also means crafting a fair and proportionate sentence that is designed to reduce the likelihood of recidivism and to prevent future crimes.” Given what we have learned about the maturational arc of adolescence and emerging adults, late adolescents between the ages of 18-25, the Chief’s observations are particularly relevant. As the noted lawyer and civil rights advocate Bryan Stevenson has observed, each one of us is more than the worst thing we have done.  The Chief’s admonitions are so important that they are cited in the report of the Juvenile Court Dispositional and Sentencing Best Practices Committee which I was privileged to chair.   

The Chief’s understanding of adolescent development and the importance of a fair and proportional  approach which achieves rehabilitative goals while best protecting the public was a theme of his jurisprudence. In Commonwealth v. Hanson H., 464 Mass. 407 (2013), he wrote the majority opinion addressing the issue of whether a judge is required to order G.P.S. monitoring for a juvenile who have been adjudicated of a sex offense as defined by G.L. c. 6 § 178C. Then Associate Justice Gants observed that it was not apparent that the legislature intended to apply mandatory G.P.S. supervision and “eliminate the discretion granted to juvenile court judges to render individualized dispositions consistent with the best interest of the child.” “We also conclude,” he wrote, “that where the legislature has established the statutory principle that as far as practicable juveniles should be treated not as criminals, but as children in need of encouragement and guidance (G.L. c. 119 § 53), we will not interpret a statute affecting juveniles, to conflict with this principle in the absence of clear legislative intent.” In reaching this conclusion, Justice Gants emphasized that our juvenile system is primarily rehabilitative.  In recognizing the adverse effects of G.P.S. monitoring on normative socialization and school functioning, he stated that “We have recognized that G.P.S. monitoring is inherently stigmatizing.”

The Chief’s insight into the stigmatizing collateral consequences of a juvenile record was also evidenced in Commonwealth v. Humberto H., 466 Mass. 562, 572 (2013), which authorized the juvenile court to allow pre-arraignment motions to dismiss in the absence of a finding of probable cause. In allowing a motion to dismiss prior to arraignment in such circumstances, Justice Gants noted that after arraignment a juvenile’s name and charge become part of the permanent Court Action Information record (C.A.R.I.) and may not be expunged, Gavin G. v. Commonwealth, 459 Mass. 470  (2002). The Chief cited Magnus M., 461 Mass. 459, 461 (2012), which allowed juvenile court judges to continue cases without a finding after jury adjudications.  The juvenile system “is primarily rehabilitative” and  “[p]rotecting a child from the stigma of being perceived to be a criminal and from the collateral consequences of a delinquency charge is important, even more important where there is no probable cause.” Access to juvenile and criminal records has been increasingly recognized as a punitive badge which, absent a much more robust model of record expungement or sealing than currently exists, becomes an eternal punitive badge. See e.g., Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press 2012, 2016).

Chief Justice Gants again displayed fealty to the medical model of limiting the dose and letting an offender get past the past in Commonwealth v. Henry, 475 Mass. 117 (2016), a criminal case involving restitution.  In this case, the opinion crafted by the Chief held that, in determining  restitution, a judge must make a finding regarding a defendant’s ability to pay as well as an assessment of loss by the victim. Of particular note is that probation may not be extended for inability to pay as doing so “subjects the probationer to additional punishment solely because of his or her poverty …. [a] judge may not extend the length of probation where a probationer violated an order of restitution due solely to an inability to pay.” This holding is particularly consequential for juveniles who rely on parents, guardians, or interested adults to support them.

In re: Care & Protection of Walt, 478 Mass. 212 (2017), involved a case in which Chief Justice Gants concluded that prior to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) removing a child from a parent’s care, the department take reasonable efforts before having the ability to justify the removal. This case reflects the Chief’s jurisprudence seeking to minimize unnecessary state intervention, which is especially important during the Covid-19 crisis. Prior to Walt, the orthodoxy had focused on Art. 30 separation of power case law limiting challenges to DCF custody to abuse of discretion. However, the Chief’s analysis now requires more rigorous inquiry into what reasonable efforts have been made to keep children with caretakers prior to removal and permits juvenile court judges to exercise equitable authority to order DCF to take reasonable remedial efforts to diminish the adverse consequences of failure of the department to having made reasonable efforts prior to removal.

In Lazlo L. v. Commonwealth, 482 Mass. 325, 328-330 (2019), the Chief authorized the retroactive application of 2018 juvenile justice reforms allowing dismissal of first offense crimes for juveniles carrying sentences of six months or less. He emphasized that “the Legislature understood that children who enter the juvenile system have a higher risk of re-offending for the remainder of their lives and … their risk of recidivism is greater the earlier they enter the system.” “We see no reason to delay the application of an amendment aimed at combatting the negative effects of Juvenile Court involvement on children and their communities.”

The Chief’s abiding conviction in ensuring equity was again reflected in one of the last cases he worked on. In his concurring opinion in Commonwealth v. Long, S.J.C. 12868 (Sept. 17, 2020), he supported the decision to adopt a new rule in allegations of racially motivated motor vehicle stops, which would place an initial burden on defendants to argue that there was a reasonable inference that stops were motivated by race or another protected class; and that in lieu of relying on statistical analysis, as previously required by Commonwealth v. Lora, 451 Mass. 425 (2008), defendants could rely on the totality of the circumstances regarding the stop. In noting that the justices had different ideas about the appropriate constitutional analysis, the Chief wrote that “… the court is unanimous in concluding that a motor vehicle stop that arises from racial profiling is unconstitutional …. [I]n short it is the unanimous view of this court that prohibition against racial profiling must be given teeth and that judges should suppress evidence where a motor vehicle is motivated, even in part, by the race of the driver or passenger.” Practitioners are already considering the implications of the case and tailoring arguments regarding racial profiling in all contexts.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants is not gone. He lives in all of our hearts. As former Chief S.J.C. Justice Margaret Marshall said during an October 27, 2020 event honoring her former colleague, “Now is not the time to grieve. It is time to get to work.” I concur. Ralph Gants was inspired by Deuteronomy’s admonition: Justice, Justice Shall You Purse. We should all follow his example.

[1] Available at http://www.mass.gov/courts/docs/sjc/docs/speeches/sjc-chief-justice-gants-remarks-umass-boston-03165.pdf.

Jay Blitzman served as the First Justice of the Middlesex County Division of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court. Prior to his retirement he was the founder of the Roxbury Youth Advocacy Project, a multi-disciplinary public defender unit which became the template for the creation of the statewide Youth Advocacy Division. Jay was also a co-founder of Massachusetts Citizens for Juvenile Justice (CfJJ) and a co-founder of Our RJ, a court and school-based diversionary restorative justice program. Judge Blitzman currently serves on the advisory boards of CfJJ, UTEC (Lowell) and is a Massachusetts Access to Justice Fellow working with More Than Words (MTW).  Jay was also a co-founder of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Juvenile and Child Welfare section council and in 2018 was the first recipient of the MBA Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Award. Jay also served as a member of the Boston Bar Association’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline and is a former BBA Brooke public service award winner. He is member of the American Bar Association’s Commission at Risk and is the ABA advisor to the Uniform Law Commission’s committee on The Criminalization of School Discipline. He is also a member of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Committee on Eyewitness Identification. Jay writes and presents regularly on systemic juvenile and criminal issues and holds teaching positions at Harvard Law School (trial advocacy), Northeastern University School of Law (juvenile law), and Boston College School of Law (Cradle to Prison Pipeline). Judge Blitzman is also a faculty member at the Center on Law Brain and Behavior (CLBB- Harvard Medical School, M.G.H.) Jay chairs the Juvenile Committee of the Criminal Justice Reform Committee at Northeastern. Judge Blitzman was the 2019 recipient of the ABA Livingston Hall Juvenile Justice Award. The Committee for Public Services (CPCS) annually presents the Jay D. Blitzman Youth Advocacy Award.