Access to Justice: Reflections on Chief Justice Gants

by Susan M. Finegan

Viewpoint

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  He mixed his dry sense of humor with a dizzying familiarity of outdated cultural references and an encyclopedic knowledge of sports.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.