Interview with Robert Vitale

by Stephen Riden

Viewpoint

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.