By Penny Schwartz
BOSTON (JTA) – Flags across Massachusetts were lowered to half-staff last week in honor of Ralph Gants, the first Jewish chief justice of the state’s highest court, whose death at 65 shocked the state’s legal community. Judges, lawyers, political figures and community leaders remembered Gants as a legal giant, passionate in his dedication to equal justice and steeped in compassion for people from all walks of life.
“He spent his entire 40-year legal career dedicated to justice and the integrity of law,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday, Sept. 15.
Gants’ death was announced on Monday, Sept. 14 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, 10 days after he was hospitalized following a heart attack. Gants had anticipated resuming his duties, initially on a limited basis, according to a statement he released. The cause of death has not yet been disclosed. Courthouses across the state closed Friday, Sept. 18 in Gants’ honor.
Speaking emotionally about Gants, Baker described Gants as an exceptional leader who “led the court with honor and distinction.”
Gants was renowned for his intelligence and his humility. He pressed for prison reform and fair sentencing, among other issues. A report from Harvard Law School on racial disparities in the Massachusetts legal system released earlier this month was undertaken at Gants’ request.
In a 2015 speech to the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, Gants invoked his Jewish heritage, noting that his ancestors and those of other immigrant groups were at one time unwelcome in the United States.
“I am here to assure you that you do not stand alone,” Gants said.
“That kind of gesture and heartfelt statement to people he knew were vulnerable or targeted, that is so the essence of Ralph Gants,” said Jeffrey Robbins, a Boston lawyer who served as chair of the New England Anti-Defamation League and was close with Gants. Gants spoke at many New England ADL programs and several years ago made his first visit to Israel, leading a delegation of Massachusetts judges to meet with their Israeli counterparts.
Gants was born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1954. After graduating Harvard and its law school, he worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston. After some years in private practice, he was appointed to the state’s Superior Court. In 2009, Gants was named an appointed associate justice at the Supreme Judicial Court and was elevated to the top position by then Gov. Deval Patrick in 2014.
He is survived by his wife, Deborah Ramirez, and two children.
Main Photo: Ralph D. Gants, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Justice Court, shown speaking at a New England Anti-Defamation League program in 2019. (Courtesy of NE ADL)