Giver Gants: A Tribute to Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants

by Hon. Karen F. Green

Voice of the Judiciary

[1]When I think of Ralph Gants, I think “giver.” Ralph made this world a better place by giving everything he had to everyone and everything he touched. From my perspective, that’s his lasting legacy.

Ralph’s predisposition to give all that he had was reflected in his impressive resume. I suspect that you are familiar with that, so I would like to focus on the man I knew behind the resume. 

I knew Ralph both personally and professionally for more than thirty-five years. Our personal friendship remained constant as our professional paths repeatedly crossed.

We first met in 1984, when we were both working for Bill Weld as Assistant U.S. Attorneys. Ralph was handling a high-profile arson case. He also had fallen hopelessly in love with my best friend, Debbie Ramirez. Unfortunately, Debbie had not yet been bitten by the same bug. Ralph enlisted my assistance in helping Debbie to appreciate his finer qualities. Suffice it to say that he did not need much. Ever a zealous advocate, Ralph gave it his all, Debbie fell hard, and my husband, Mark, and I smiled widely as the two joyously wed three years later.  

Mark and I had children and Debbie and Ralph had children, first, Rachel, and then, Michael. Life whirred as the four of us sought mightily to balance our personal and professional lives. Debbie, our friend, Joy Fallon, and I started a tradition of walking on Saturday mornings and sharing birthdays together. I still fondly remember a 1993 call I received from Ralph suggesting that I take his wife away. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. Rachel was about a month old and the ever-thoughtful Ralph thought Debbie could use a long girls’ weekend for her birthday. Debbie, Joy and I headed to Florida, where we did nothing but enjoy each other’s company, while Ralph assumed full responsibility for Rachel.

Eventually, each of us left the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Debbie entered academia and Ralph and I went to the DPS, that is, the “dreaded private sector.” I got to work with Ralph again, first as a fellow member of Governor-Elect Weld’s transition team, and later, defending corporate clients in federal criminal investigations. I was struck by his intellect, tenacity, and pragmatism. When I wrestled with a particularly thorny problem, I called Ralph, we talked, and the path forward seemed obvious. It was never about Ralph and always about solving the problem.

Debbie, Joy and I continued to walk on Saturdays whenever we could. In 1997, Mark was nominated to the Land Court. He requested Ralph’s help in the confirmation process.  As always, Ralph immediately stepped up to the plate. Several months later, Ralph’s nomination to the Superior Court was confirmed. We celebrated with him and Debbie then, when Ralph was appointed to the SJC in 2008, and again when he was named Chief Justice in 2014. With family and friends, we also cheered when Ralph threw the first pitch at Fenway Park after his swearing in.

Fast forward more years. After Mark’s 2017 appointment as Chief of the Appeals Court, he and Ralph worked closely together on a myriad of challenges, including the pandemic confronting the court system. I continued to admire Ralph’s capacity to dig in and to solve whatever problem came his way. And Debbie and I talked, on our walks, about how we never would have predicted, when we were still in law school, that life would turn out the way it did. 

Others have already described Ralph, now affectionately known as RDG, as a brilliant jurist and empathetic leader. He certainly was. The Ralph I knew was a leader who listened carefully and put the interests of others before his own. He had high standards that he applied most rigorously to himself. He cared deeply about the rule of law and equal access to justice. He was a judge’s judge who wrote clear and concise opinions on significant legal issues that others could follow. He got things done by working hard and collaboratively with others. He worked to provide equal access to justice right up until the moment he died.

For me, though, Ralph’s most endearing quality was the unconditional love he gave to his family while shouldering all of his other responsibilities. One of the best measures of a man’s character is the way he treats those closest to him. When his own Dad died swimming at age 90, Ralph immediately flew to New York to take care of his mother. He then personally moved her and all of her belongings to Massachusetts. When Helaine’s health declined, Ralph visited her nearly every weekend at the assisted living facility he found for her. At Helaine’s memorial service, Ralph lovingly delivered a tribute to her that made me cry.

Together with Debbie, Ralph also saw his children through serious medical challenges when they were younger. By his daily example, he showed Rachel and Michael what it means to be a “giver” rather than a “taker.” Today, both are paying it forward by giving their best to others.  Rachel spent the past summer at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau assisting tenants threatened with evictions and took the Bar exam in October. Michael returned to Massachusetts from Stanford Business School in September and, like his father, is now focused on helping his mother.  

Ralph was an equally thoughtful and caring friend. He, Debbie, Mark, and I shared many happy moments, as well as a few sad ones, over the years. We were fellow travelers in life. We traveled along the same roads not only to judges’ conferences, but also to swim at the beach, to ski in New Hampshire (including during one very scary snowstorm), to bicycle in Italy, and to learn about civil and human rights in places like Israel and Alabama. Ralph took the time to get to know our parents and children, to share in our traditions and celebrations, and to provide a listening ear and comforting words when they were most needed. Whenever I called to request his help, he quickly responded, no matter what else he had on his plate.

And Ralph made me laugh. When Ralph was still in the DPS, I laughed when he delivered an impassioned closing argument in defense of Sweeney Todd at a mock trial at a Boston theater. I recall being struck then by the obvious care that Ralph had devoted to crafting Todd’s defense and the skill with which he had delivered his remarks. Ralph cracked a joke as I nervously joined him in a waiting room outside the White House Counsel’s Office in 2003 that instantly put me at ease. And, in 2013, he sang and danced with a tambourine so unabashedly before all of the patrons at an Italian restaurant that I laughed so hard, I cried. (No, Ralph was not impaired at the time, he rarely drank; he was just once again giving it his all.)

Like many others, I will miss Ralph’s friendship and unfailing kindness, as well as his keen intellect and extraordinary leadership. To paraphrase the poet, Mary Oliver, Ralph died “not simply having visited this world,” but “hav[ing] made of [his] life something particular, and real.” 

Let us honor his memory by continuing to be “givers,” rather than “takers” and by continuing to ensure equal access to justice. And just as Ralph would, let us hold ever close to us the people we love.

[1] “These remarks were originally given orally by Judge Karen F. Green on November 10, 2020.  They have been edited minimally for formatting purposes.

Karen F. Green is an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court. She handles serious felonies in criminal trial sessions and complex civil disputes in the Business Litigation-1 Session. She also is a member of the Executive Board of the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, the Advisory Board of UMass Law School’s Justice Bridge, and a Criminal Justice Task Force chaired by Professor Deborah Ramirez of Northeastern Law School. Prior to her 2016 appointment to the bench, Judge Green was a litigation partner at WilmerHale.