by Chief Justice Judith Fabricant
Voice of the Judiciary
Ralph Gants took the oath as a judge of the Superior Court on November 12, 1997. At age 43, he had outstanding educational achievements and an extensive background in high-level federal law enforcement and large firm practice, but relatively little experience in the more rough-and-tumble environment of state court. His new colleagues were ready to welcome him as we do everyone who joins us. At the same time, some may have wondered what mindset he would bring, and how he would make the transition. Chief Justice Robert Mulligan conducted Ralph’s induction ceremony on November 13, 1997, in the high-rise building on Thorndike Street in Cambridge later known as the Edward J. Sullivan Courthouse. The Chief recited the standard induction speech, pledging to our new colleague “our collective and individual fellowship, assistance and cooperation,” and reciting that “each of your colleagues stands ready to assist you in any way you may need, and we know that we can depend on your help when we need it.”
I never had occasion to talk with Ralph about that ceremony, but I know that he heard those words and took them seriously – or that his natural inclinations led him to do exactly what those words call for. When I was ill for several months, he called regularly, and sent me his favorite novels, which provided comfort through both the mental diversion of reading and the expression of his caring. When the media criticized any judge’s decision, Ralph was among the first to call. Long before we had our current structured orientation program, Ralph would offer new judges support and consultation, including the fruits of his remarkably well-indexed resource library. Ralph would consult colleagues as well, always doing his own research first, so that his questions reflected full awareness of established law and focused on what remained open to interpretation or discretion.
From the beginning, Ralph recognized the value of showing up, in times of celebration and fellowship, as well as times of loss. He came to retirement receptions, birthday parties, wakes, and funerals, not just for judges, but also for assistant clerks, court officers, court reporters, and others who were part of our day-to-day work family. He played softball; recited baseball statistics; told funny stories at his own expense; sang silly songs; asked about family members; and, more generally, was good company.
He did all of that while handling the most challenging cases in every field, civil and criminal, jury and non-jury, all smoothly and skillfully. His opinions were thorough, scholarly, wise, and witty, sprinkled with references to sports, classic movies, and Broadway musicals. He wrote a lot, but his writing never carried a whiff of showing off. He wrote to grapple with complex issues, to explain his reasoning, and to assure the parties that he had heard and considered their positions. When writing would not serve those purposes, he would instead announce decisions orally from the bench, with remarkable clarity and organization, in the manner pioneered by Martha Sosman.
Ralph’s collegiality, along with his humility and good humor, quickly earned him good will, while his towering intellect and conscientious devotion to the law earned him universal respect. He needed both, because from very early in his tenure, Ralph demonstrated his independence, his systemic thinking, and his willingness to express his views to those in positions of power without concern for consequences.
Ralph had no fear of public criticism, or of reversal. When he found that police errors required dismissal of a charge, or that a police witness’s misrepresentation required suppression of evidence, he said so unequivocally, and sent a copy of his findings to the police commissioner. When presented with expert testimony about a sex offender, he found and read the scientific literature himself, surely cognizant that reversal might follow, as it eventually did. He enjoined thousands of mortgage foreclosures founded on predatory loans, knowing there was little precedent for his ruling, but believing it was right. As Ralph himself acknowledged at his swearing-in to the SJC in 2009, these decisions put his nomination at some risk. He accepted that risk.
Ralph also had no fear of court hierarchy. When he arrived at his first assignment in Middlesex County in 1997, he brought his own laptop computer, just as the court was beginning to issue standard equipment, with standard policies for its use. Barely two years into his judicial service, he sent a letter to the then Chief Justice proposing a process of setting goals and objectives for such matters as case management, long-range planning, and legislation. In 2002, when court leaders announced measures to manage a budget crisis, Ralph wrote a series of eloquent, respectful, and persuasive letters explaining why those measures were misguided. In about 2005, when he sat for the first time in the Suffolk First Criminal session, he proposed to the Regional Administrative Justice a comprehensive revamping of case-flow processes.
From my current perspective as Chief, I can easily see how Ralph’s constant suggestions for improvement might have ruffled feathers, especially early in his tenure. But that was not the reaction he elicited. To the contrary, colleagues and court leaders loved and valued him, even though the court did not always adopt his ideas. I attribute that to his humility. Ralph never thought he was smarter or more capable or more committed than anyone else, although many of us thought he was. He respected all of us, and sought to enable all of us together to serve the public as well as we possibly could.
After Ralph left the Superior Court in early 2009, he came back regularly to speak at our educational conferences and at what we call “New Judge School.” He seemed to feel that he was coming home, and we felt that we were welcoming a returning family member. One tip he gave, which I try to pass on, was this: If the law seems to be telling you to do something absurd, don’t do it. Think longer. Consult others. Find a solution that makes sense.
Ralph showed us a way to think about the law so that it makes sense, and it serves. His memory is a blessing to all of us and to the public.