by Stephen Riden
As chair of the Boston Bar Journal, I had the opportunity to talk with Robert Vitale, Chief Court Officer of the Supreme Judicial Court, about his professional and personal relationship with Chief Justice Gants. What follows is an excerpt of our discussion, condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: Over the years you must have met a lot of judges. What was your first impression of Justice Gants?
A: Yes, I have. However, Chief Justice Gants stood out because I could tell he was a very kind and caring person. It was easy to see how passionate he was about his work and that he had a great sense of humor.
Q: How would you generally describe Justice Gants?
A: I would describe him as an all-around great guy and a good friend. He was very humble, compassionate, and intelligent. He cared about everybody. He had endless energy. Frankly, I don’t know how he kept up the schedule he did. I feel like he worked twenty hours a day seven days a week.
Q: Could you provide an example?
A: In addition to his regular work schedule, he made it a point to go out and visit different courts around the state. The purpose for the visits was so that he could meet as many court employees as possible.
Typically, the visit would start with a small meet and greet with the court’s ”management team,” the judges, magistrates, registrars, chiefs and assistant chiefs of probation and security. He would discuss a variety of issues and answer any questions they had.
From there, assuming the court had a jury pool, he always wanted to address the jurors. He wanted to thank them for their service and let them know the importance of the work they were doing for the Commonwealth.
He would then take a tour of the court. This would include going to each department and stopping by everyone’s desk to say hello. He did not want to disturb anyone, but he wanted to meet as many employees as possible to say hello and thank them for the important work that they do every day.
In addition to meeting the staff, he always wanted to have an employee luncheon. This was his favorite part of the visit. The luncheon was only for “line” staff, not management. He said it was important for him to meet the employees who are in the trenches and on the front lines. He always told them that he valued their perspective and that they should not hold back on their opinions. He wanted to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. He took notes and let the staff know that whatever was said at the luncheon was confidential and that he appreciated their honesty.
Q: He seems like the kind of guy who could talk to anyone, is that right?
A: Absolutely. I would say that, given the position he was in, I don’t think you ever felt like you were talking to the Chief Justice – he was just so easy to talk to. He had a great sense of humor, he was quick witted, and he never took himself too seriously.
Q: What can you share about how he treated lawyers who appeared before him?
A: He treated everybody with respect. If he disagreed with an attorney, he always did it respectfully and did not embarrass anyone. For him, it was always about being fair, respectful and trying to get the right result.
Q: I understand that he was always looking for opportunities to make improvements to the court system. Did you observe that in your interactions with him?
A: Absolutely. He was always open to hearing new ideas. If something wasn’t working, you were free to tell him it wasn’t working and why you thought it wasn’t. He did not have the “my way or the highway” mentality. He would always ask, “what can we do to fix it?”
Q: Do you have a sense of what else he wanted to accomplish?
A: One of the things that he was most passionate about was access to justice. He worked tirelessly to promote and expand access to the courts for everyone in the Commonwealth.
At the time of his death, he was working on several issues that were priorities for him. These included the Massachusetts Eviction Moratorium that was set to expire on October 18, racial injustice, and criminal justice reform.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?
A: Chief Justice Gants was an avid sports fan. He followed all the New England sports teams but he really loved the Boston Red Sox. On July 28, 2014, he was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Red Sox played the Toronto Blue Jays.
He told me he had been practicing to make sure that he didn’t bounce the ball before the plate. He was both excited and nervous at the same time but it was such an honor to have been asked.
Lastly, I would say that we are all going to miss him, certainly those of us who worked closely with him every day. This is a huge loss for the court system in general. He wasn’t just my boss and colleague, he was also my friend.
Stephen Riden is a commercial litigator at Beck Reed Riden LLP, who represents corporate and individual clients in a wide array of disputes across the country. He is the chair of the Boston Bar Journal.
by Susan M. Finegan
It was a privilege to partner so closely with Chief Justice Gants on access to justice initiatives over the past ten years, having served with him for ten years as a member of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission (commission), and then as his commission co-chair. Throughout his time on the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), he cared so deeply about access to justice, constantly thinking strategically about ways to make the civil justice system more accessible and fair. Soon after his appointment as an associate justice of the SJC, Chief Justice Marshall approached him to become the co-chair of the commission. This new role was his first engagement with civil legal aid and access to justice issues; true to form, he rolled up his sleeves to learn as much as possible, and energetically set to work. Four years later, during the appointment process for the Chief Justice position, he filled at least two pages of his application describing the various commission projects on which he collaborated with so many during his first years on the commission. In fact, in answering the judicial application question, “What are you most proud of?,” he listed his work as co-chair of the commission first. Certainly he did not lack for other professional achievements in his decades-long, storied career as a trial lawyer and trial and appellate judge, but his commission work clearly embodied the essence of what was truly important to him, as a judge and a person.
His emphasis on collaboration and teamwork was one of the hallmarks of his commission work. Throughout his tenure as co-chair, he encouraged people to work with him and engaged deeply with them – applying his laser focus and astonishing work ethic to every project. He relished working with the impressive and committed people of the commission, many of whom he had not met before joining, and likely would never have met had he not been asked to take on the co-chair role. He made the work enjoyable, too, by connecting with people on a human level, not just as Chief. He mixed his dry sense of humor with a dizzying familiarity of outdated cultural references and an encyclopedic knowledge of sports.
During his Chief Justice nomination period, he spoke several times about life lessons learned from his parents. The first was from his father, a French and German wine salesman to restaurants and liquor stores in New York. His father was always mindful of the concept of continued performance, saying often, “They don’t care what you did last year; they care what you are going to do this year.” The Chief Justice took that advice to heart in all of the work that we did together. He was an energetic man of action – on the commission, as Chief Justice, and nationally.
On the commission, for the better part of the last decade, he pushed us to be a “working” commission, transforming the organization into a more proactive organization. Every summer, he loved holding commission retreats at his house to develop a strategic plan of action for the coming year. He encouraged us in those meetings to think deeply with him about the important issues we faced, insisting that we left the retreat with three or four actionable goals that we could achieve by year’s end, and, inevitably, with an overflowing bag of leftover muffins and sandwiches.
He would often say to me that the commission needed to do things, not just create reports to have them “collect dust on shelves.” So, when we did produce reports, they had to have a purpose. A prime example of this is a report we worked on together four years ago, the Justice For All Strategic Action Plan. This project involved putting on paper a vision for the how the courts could transform how they handled those case types – family law, housing law, and consumer debt – where a majority of the litigants were unrepresented. We were one of the first states to work on such a project, so there was no blueprint for how it was supposed to be framed. We spent a year conducting outreach, convening committee meetings, and holding retreats. Then the time came, around Thanksgiving, to start drafting. When the consultant we had hired to produce the first draft left the project unexpectedly, the Chief Justice did not miss a beat: he just rolled up his sleeves with a small team of us and started drafting. Then, as any experienced appellate judge would do, he started editing, and then continued editing, and editing some more. I never admitted this to him, but I was quite satisfied with the report on the twentieth round of edits, but he insisted that we continue, through Christmas Eve, to round twenty-five. The action-oriented plan we finalized has served as a blueprint for much of our commission’s work for the last four years, and will for the years to come.
He also used his role as co-chair of the commission to advocate for changes in the court system. For example, several years ago, he asked commissioners to draft a report on a relatively new concept established by a few other states called “court service centers,” which could assist unrepresented litigants. That report, authored by commissioner (and former BBA president) Tony Doniger, helped lay the groundwork for the court to fund two pilot court service centers the following year. Likewise, the Chief leaned on the commission at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting court building closures, to provide constructive feedback on the court user experience during that time.
He carried his passion for access to justice through to his work on the SJC. He used his judicial role to ensure that the voiceless in the court system had a voice. And he availed himself of every tool at his disposal, including: drafting opinions that impacted low income litigants; making rule changes that were equitable for all litigants, including the unrepresented; and expanding the court budget to increase the number of court service centers to assist more unrepresented litigants. He used his many speaking opportunities, such as the annual State of the Judiciary, to advocate for the racial justice, civil rights, criminal justice reform, and access to justice, issues about which he cared deeply. As he observed in his most recent State of the Judiciary address:
Until we create a world in which all who need counsel in civil cases have access to counsel, we must do all we can to make the court system more understandable and accessible for the many litigants who must represent themselves.
He was also a man of action on the national stage. As a dynamic member and leader of the Conference of Chief Justices and of the Justice For All Initiative, he deftly pressed other state courts to make justice more accessible to all. He created conference agendas and suggested keynote speakers to have other judges think about issues impacting those marginalized by the justice system. He also drafted policy resolutions addressing access to justice, consumer debt, and racial justice. Then, he used his political savvy to figure out the best way to ensure they were adopted, which often meant strategically asking someone else to take the lead in promoting the resolution. In his application to be considered for Chief Justice, he said: “I would like to believe that, if named as Chief Justice, I could play a national leadership role in advocating for access to justice, because I think Massachusetts is becoming a national leader in exploring innovative ways to provide access to all.” He lived out that aspirational goal through his actions and words every day he served as Chief Justice.
Another life lesson he shared during his nomination process was from his mother, who judged everyone by how they treated others. The highest praise she could give to a person of accomplishment was that he “was a regular guy.” As in, “that Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine, but he was just a regular guy.” He took that advice to heart in the way that he focused on how a typical court user would experience walking through the courthouse doors. In fact, he had a favorite hypothetical litigant, Mrs. Alvarado, a low income single mother of two who lived with her disabled mother. He used this example to educate himself, and others, to better understand how she would experience the courts in her family’s high stakes eviction process.
Living his mother’s credo, as the Chief Justice, he could have stayed in his ornate office on the second floor of the Adams Courthouse, and bask in his many accomplishments, yet he chose to venture out, physically and emotionally, to focus on those in our community who did not have access to such privilege. He felt a great responsibility as Chief Justice and as the leader of the court system to try to understand what it was like to come to court with no attorney, with no facility with language, with insecure immigration status, or with no access to technology. He was especially concerned about the “court user experience” during his last seven months, during the pandemic, when access to court buildings was closed to most litigants and self-represented litigants had to figure out how to find and use remote court systems. He valiantly worked with other court leaders to address the many challenges the court system faced. He sought out feedback – the good and the bad – to make improvements where he could, noting that it was imperative for the court to know what was happening on the ground.
He continued to think about those litigants in the final months, and moments, of his life, when he focused almost exclusively on the looming eviction crisis resulting from the pandemic and the ensuing economic recession. He had previously described this eviction crisis as “the greatest access to justice challenge of our lifetime.” On the morning of his death, the Chief Justice and I spoke for more than a half hour about his deep concerns on the eviction front, strategizing on solutions as we often would. I take some solace in the fact that he spent the last hours of his incredible life using the gift of his intellect and the privilege of his power as Chief to help the many desperate people impacted by this pandemic.
In one of his last speeches as Chief Justice, at the Access to Justice Fellows “graduation” event this past June, he quoted from the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities, which he said described the first months of the pandemic:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …
His examples of the “worst of times” in that speech were, of course, numerous – including the pandemic itself, widespread economic insecurity, and systemic racism. He noted, however, that there was an undercurrent of the “best of times” in that the pandemic presented an opportunity for the court system – and, indeed, for all of us – to begin to “transform ourselves in ways that we never really have had to do before.” It was a time, “in which not only do we need people’s commitment, but also we need people’s imagination, to find new ways to do things,” collectively and collaboratively. The Chief further noted that, even though the times were challenging, “we will emerge from this stronger.” I must admit that it will be much harder to emerge from this stronger without his indispensable leadership. I also know that, more than anything else, he would insist that we all continue to do our part to provide greater access to justice for all because there is still so much unfinished work.
I’ll close this reflection with a nod to his mother: “that Ralph Gants was a brilliant jurist; a national voice for access to justice; an indispensable leader of the court system; a beloved figure to so many yet also a great friend to those close to him; but, most of all, a regular guy.”
Susan M. Finegan is a litigation partner and Chair of the Pro Bono Committee at Mintz. As the firm’s pro bono partner, she serves as lead counsel on numerous high profile pro bono litigation matters and oversees the 300+ pro bono matters throughout the firm. Sue is active on many boards and commissions, including as a member and current co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.
by Hon. Jay Blitzman (Ret.)
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.” “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.
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.
by Martin Murphy
For lawyers—indeed, for anyone who values the rule of law, cares deeply about civil rights, and envisions our legal system as a force to protect the most vulnerable among us—September 2020 was an extraordinarily cruel month. On September 14, we were shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the sudden death of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants. And only four days later, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, finally lost her long battle with pancreatic cancer.
The next issue of the Boston Bar Journal will be dedicated to Chief Justice Gants and his legacy. I’ll have much more to say there about his loss, which so many of our members felt deeply and personally.
But as I write this—less than two weeks after Election Day, and only a few days after the BBA’s 2020 Annual Meeting—my thoughts turn to a New Yorker essay paying tribute to Justice Ginsburg, written by our Annual Meeting keynote speaker, Harvard history professor Jill Lepore. Professor Lepore summed up Justice Ginsburg’s life this way: “Aside from Thurgood Marshall, no single American has so wholly advanced the cause of equality under the law.” One example: Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Shelby County v. Holder , criticizing the Court’s decision to read the critical pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 out of the statute. “Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Justice Ginsburg’s opinion quoted Martin Luther King’s familiar statement: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But, as Professor Lepore pointed out, when Justice Ginsburg read her dissent in open court, she added her own coda: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” she said, “but it bends toward justice if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” (You can hear Justice Ginsburg read her dissent here).
A “steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion” has long been part of the BBA’s DNA. Living up to that commitment remains as important now as ever.
At the end of May, we watched in horror as George Floyd called out “I can’t breathe” over and over and over. In the weeks and months that followed, we saw the possibility of a national reckoning on the question of race—and the prospect that here in Massachusetts we might take concrete steps to ensure that all police officers protect and serve everyone, including Black men and women and other people of color. The BBA’s Task Force on Police Accountability—chaired by former Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph Martin, now General Counsel of Northeastern, and Natashia Tidwell, a partner at Saul Ewing and the Court-appointed monitor in the Ferguson case—is hard at work on this issue, and we believe the BBA can make a meaningful contribution to public debate.
As the election approached, the BBA sponsored programs that trained dozens of volunteers to protect voters’ rights as we prepared for what we expected—for good reason—would be one of the most contentious elections in our lifetimes.
BBA programs also trained dozens more to represent the many tenants affected when the eviction moratorium was lifted in October, and we are assisting the Governor’s Office and legal-services stakeholders in their Eviction Diversion Initiative—all to try to prevent a tsunami of evictions and resulting surge in homelessness.
And at our Annual Meeting last week, I was honored to present the BBA President’s Award to the many lawyers who put aside the personal challenges we all faced when the pandemic hit to think, not of themselves, but about the more than 14,000 individuals detained at Houses of Correction and prisons—thousands of whom had not yet been convicted of any offense. Their work changed the standard for release of non-violent offenders (something the BBA has long advocated), secured mandatory COVID-19 testing for individuals detained on civil immigration charges at the Bristol County House of Correction, and led to the release of thousands of individuals.
But, as recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the Essex County jail and at the MCI-Norfolk state prison remind us, much work remains to be done on this issue. So too does much work remain on the BBA’s other priorities: ensuring police accountability, addressing the school to prison pipeline, supporting civil legal aid (particularly following the end of the eviction moratorium), protecting the rule of law, among others. And, most of all, much more work remains if we are to be serious about dismantling the system of structural racism that that has worked itself so deeply into the fabric of our country and its laws.
I know I speak for my predecessors, for the BBA’s volunteer leaders, and for its extraordinary staff, when I say that I am optimistic—indeed, confident–that our members will meet Justice Ginsburg’s challenge and continue to prove their steadfast commitments to each of these tasks.
by Victor Hansen
In one of his last opinions before his untimely passing, Chief Justice Ralph Gants addressed the unique and important responsibility of the criminal prosecutor to do justice. In fulfilling this responsibility, the prosecutor acts not as an extension of law enforcement but as an important check against corrupt and abusive practices. These reminders came in the Matter of a Grand Jury Investigation involving two police officers (the petitioners) who admitted filing false police reports regarding the use of force by a fellow officer.
While on duty, the petitioners observed, but did not participate in, the arrest of a citizen charged with, among other things, resisting arrest. The arresting officer, Michael Pessoa, claimed that the arrestee was noncompliant and threatening, and that force had to be used to subdue him, as a result of which the arrestee was injured. The petitioners supported Pessoa’s version when they completed an internal departmental report of the arrest. However, video evidence revealed that the arrestee had not resisted. Rather, Pessoa had struck the compliant arrestee with his head and shoulder, knocking the arrestee to the ground “in a violent manner.”
During an ensuing grand jury investigation into Pessoa’s conduct, the petitioners testified under grants of transactional immunity and admitted to lying in their departmental reports. The district attorney sought permission from the Superior Court to disclose this information to criminal defendants in other cases where the petitioners could be potential witnesses, asserting that due process required the disclosure of this potentially exculpatory evidence under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150 (1972). The petitioners sought to prevent the disclosure of their testimony.
In its decision, the Supreme Judicial Court addressed three questions: (1) whether Brady requires disclosure of this information in unrelated cases; (2) whether, if there is such an obligation, the district attorney could disclose the evidence even if it was obtained pursuant to a grant of immunity and order to testify before the grand jury; and (3) whether, if there is a Brady obligation, the prosecutor must seek prior judicial approval before disclosing the evidence. The Court concluded that the prosecution had an obligation to produce the discovery at issue without a court order. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Gants powerfully reaffirmed that prosecutors do not serve a narrow constituency and are not merely an arm of law enforcement. Rather, the prosecution has the unique and important responsibility to seek justice.
First, the Court took a broad view of the type of evidence that falls within the scope of Brady. Brady covers not merely direct evidence of a defendant’s possible innocence, but equally information that challenges the credibility of key prosecution witnesses (the type of evidence at issue in this case). The Court also noted that the prosecution’s disclosure obligations are broader than Brady, the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure, and the Rules of Professional Conduct require prosecutors to disclose all evidence or information that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigate the offense. The Court thus included within Brady not only the constitutional obligation to disclose exculpatory information but also the broader obligation to make disclosure under Massachusetts rules.
Second, the petitioners argued that the failure to disclose this evidence in other criminal cases would not automatically require new trials in those cases because, even if a defendant were convicted, the information is not exculpatory. The Court rejected this argument for two reasons: it reflected a too narrow view of the scope of a prosecutor’s Brady obligation, and because such an approach would encourage prosecutors to game the system and only consider how much exculpatory information they could safely withhold. Chief Justice Gants reminded us that we expect more from prosecutors than gamesmanship: rather than operating close to the ethical sidelines, prosecutors must operate in the middle of the field. According to the Chief Justice, “once the information is determined to be exculpatory, it should be disclosed – period.” And if the prosecutors are at all in doubt about the exculpatory nature of the evidence, they should err on the side of caution and disclose it.
Applying this standard, the Court had little difficulty determining that, when police officers lie in official reports, such information is exculpatory and must be disclosed to any criminal defendant in whose case those officers may testify.
The petitioners also argued that the immunity grant they had received in exchange for their grand jury testimony should be applied broadly. They contended that, if their falsehoods were disclosed to defendants in other cases, it would penalize the police officers for invoking their privilege against self-incrimination and violate the protections they received from the immunity grant. The Court concluded, however, that, while the evidence was compelled, that did not affect the prosecutors’ Brady obligations. Even though the disclosed exculpatory information might paint the petitioners in a bad light and reveal their “dirty deeds,” the grant of immunity protected the petitioners only from prosecution and not embarrassment. Chief Justice Gants reminded prosecutors that complying with their Brady obligations might be inconvenient, uncomfortable, embarrassing or worse, but that prosecutors cannot fail to disclose Brady material out of a misplaced sense of duty or loyalty to law enforcement, or to prevent embarrassing themselves or members of their office, public officials or potential witnesses. Although avoiding needless or gratuitous embarrassment is worthwhile, that interest never outweighs a criminal defendant’s due process rights. Disclosure is always the correct choice, even when it may have a short term impact on the relationship between prosecutors and others, including law enforcement officials.
Finally, the Court addressed whether prior judicial approval is required before disclosing Brady material that was part of a grand jury proceeding. The Court again referred to the duties of the prosecutor. While maintaining grand jury secrecy is important, the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure governing grand jury secrecy provide that prosecutors may disclose matters occurring before the grand jury doing so is within the official performance of their duties. Just as prosecutors have an official duty to present inculpatory evidence to a grand jury, they have an equally important duty to disclose exculpatory information that may enable defendants to prove their innocence. Accordingly, the prosecution can disclose this Brady information without a court order as part of their official duties. Chief Justice Gants again emphasized that prosecutors represent not an ordinary party, but of a sovereignty whose obligation is to govern impartially.
Many familiar with the role and functions of the prosecutor may not find the Court’s ruling surprising. The ethical and constitutional obligations of the prosecutor are broad and, to its credit, the lawyers in the district attorney’s office recognized those obligations and proactively complied with them. One might wonder, then, why Brady violations continue to be a persistent problem in the criminal justice system, both nationally and in Massachusetts. Indeed, one of the most egregious Brady violations in the Commonwealth’s recent history occurred not long ago, when prosecutors failed to disclose the breadth of an Amherst drug lab technician’s substance abuse problems, which affected many hundreds of criminal cases.
The reasons why Brady violations persist are complicated and varied, including confirmation bias, the difficulty of prosecutors policing themselves, the desire of prosecutors to have good working relationships with law enforcement, job security, and even racial bias. It is a fitting testament to Chief Justice Gants’ legacy that he clearly recognized that none could outweigh a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial. The Chief Justice’s opinion serves as a poignant and important reminder that our criminal justice system is far from perfect, and that prosecutors, when they are motivated and guided by a sense of doing justice, have a critical role to play to ensure it is just.
Professor Victor M. Hansen, Professor of Law, directs the Criminal Practice and Procedure certificate program and teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, and Prosecutorial Ethics at New England Law | Boston. He is the author of several articles and books on criminal and military law, evidence, and national security issues, and is an elected member of the American Law Institute.