By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Ralph Gants will be the next chief justice of the state’s highest court, after a unanimous vote by the Governor’s Council Wednesday.
The council voted 8-0 in favor of Gants. He will replace Judge Roderick Ireland, who announced he will retire this July as he nears the mandatory retirement age of 70. Ireland was chief justice for nearly four years.
Gants has been a judge in Massachusetts for 17 years. At 59 years old, he is the youngest member of the SJC, and could be chief justice for a decade.
Gants has served on the SJC since 2009 after he was elevated from the state Superior Court. Former Gov. William Weld appointed Gants to the Superior Court bench in 1997. During his 33-year legal career, Gants also worked in the U.S. Attorney’s office, as an assistant to the director of the F.B.I., and as a defense attorney focused white collar crime at the Boston firm Palmer & Dodge.
Gants was born in New Rochelle, N.Y. and studied economics at Harvard University, earning a bachelor’s degree. He received his law degree from Harvard before going on to clerk for United States District Court Judge Eugene Nickerson.
By tapping a sitting member of the court, Gov. Deval Patrick will get the chance to make at least one more appointment to the high court before he leaves office. Patrick told reporters he has a pool of candidates in mind, and plans to interview people soon.
“I have talked about certain criteria, and certain candidates,” Patrick said. “We’ve narrowed it down, not to get ahead of ourselves, but to be prepared, and like I said I hope to make the appointment soon.”
The governor has already appointed four of the court’s seven justices – Gants, Justices Margot Botsford, Barbara Lenk, and Fernande Duffly. When he nominated Gants, Patrick said he would wait until he was confirmed before announcing his next SJC nominee.
“The SJC is a special court. It is the court of last resort. It interprets. I am looking for people who will interpret the law, not make new law; that will honor constitutional principles and that will above all see the people behind the cases,” Patrick said after Gants was confirmed.
Ireland said during the confirmation hearing that he fully supports Gants replacing him. The court will experience significant turnover in the next few years as other justices reach the retirement age, and Gants will be the right person to lead the court, Ireland said.
Patrick said he sees his legacy on the court reflected in how judges treat the people who appear before them. He said nominees often tell him they “will make him proud.”
“I always say to them, ‘If you want to make me proud do right by the people who come before you. Keep the humility that is necessary to be an effective judge front of mind,’ ” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who appear before the court – lawyers and litigants – that they have been getting that sense from this court and other courts. That makes me proud.”
Council members said they were convinced Gants will make an excellent chief justice during his confirmation hearing that lasted more than 17 hours over three days.
“Justice Gants earned this position the old-fashioned way by being well-qualified with knowledge of the law, his broad legal experience before being a judge, and having the correct demeanor and temperament,” Councilor Marilyn Devaney said before the vote.
Council members praised Gants for how he conducted himself during the hearing. Several councilors said it was the most important nomination that would come before the council – the eight-member panel that vets all judicial nominees.
“I also lastly want to applaud Justice Gants, who sat through 17 hours of questions, and answered every single question like it was the most important question he had been asked,” Councilor Jennie Caissie said.
The council delved into Gants’ thoughts on mandatory sentences, opiate addiction, gun owners’ rights, abortion, privacy rights, and the recent SJC decision that ruled life sentences for juvenile murderers without the possibility of parole as unconstitutional.
In describing his judicial philosophy, Gants said he believes state statute should be interpreted in a way that is faithful to the Legislature’s intention, and he described the state constitution as a “living, breathing document,” meant to endure for generations and therefore “must adapt to changing circumstances and to our evolving understanding of the meaning of due process and equity under the law.”
Gants said he would like to see the courts become better at problem solving, and move towards more individualized sentences for those convicted. He would like to see judges be able to craft sentences that are appropriate to the crime and the individual, but said mandatory sentences get in the way of that.
In other states, there is a move away from mandatory sentences – something Gants thinks should be happening in Massachusetts. Public sentiment on sentencing, particularly in drug cases, is shifting, he said, largely because what has been done is not working.
“I have been there, having to impose sentences I thought were longer than I thought appropriate,” he said.