Mensch on the Bench: Remembering Massachusetts Chief Justice Ralph Gants

By Jeff Robbins

October 13, 2020 5 min read

Lawyers are not generally known for their humility, and anyone who has spent much time in courts knows that lawyers fortunate enough to become judges can develop a certain, shall we say, arrogance. Some years ago, one Massachusetts trial judge announced to her courtroom, "I'm very smart. I really am," a memorable expression of self-admiration that remained distinctive until Donald Trump made proclamations like that commonplace.

But then there are those whose humility is an inspiration. Four days before the passing of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg shook the nation, Massachusetts experienced its own blow to the civic solar plexus with the death of Ralph Gants, the chief justice of its Supreme Judicial Court. Lawyers and litigants, community leaders and ordinary citizens mourned Gants' death in a reaction unusually intense and widespread for the passing of a judge. Flags across the Commonwealth were lowered as commenters on the websites of both right- and left-wing media outlets took a short break from one-upping one another with snark in order to praise Gants. Courts, law schools and lawyers' groups have already begun a series of events honoring Gants' memory, unlike any outpouring of appreciation Massachusetts has ever seen for a judge.

This would have surprised Gants, a wry, self-effacing man whose death at age 65 cut short a life spent trying to help others on a human level and enhance fairness on a judicial one. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School and a successful federal prosecutor, Gants would have had plenty of reason to regard himself as special, as he was appointed to be a trial judge at age 42. Tapped by Gov. Deval Patrick to be chief justice of the state's highest court, he built upon the reputation he already had by not only being a thoughtful jurist but also being kind to those who appeared before him. Invoking the Yiddish word for a person of honor and integrity, one cantankerous political figure whose conservative politics contrasted with Gants' liberalism greeted his appointment with grudging approval. "Ralph Gants is a mensch," she said, "and the bench needs a mensch."

It got a mensch in Gants, who hurled himself into launching programs aimed at dramatically improving access to the courts, crisscrossing Massachusetts to prod lawyers to represent the powerless and court systems to better protect the disenfranchised. Weeks after the 2016 presidential election, Gants made a point of traveling to Boston's largest mosque to convey a message of support for 800 Muslim worshippers. "You do not stand alone," Gants told them. "You have a Constitution and laws to protect your right to practice your religion, to protect you from discrimination and the denial of your equal rights, and to protect you from acts of violence that might be committed because of your religion or your nation of origin."

Gants' identification with the underdog was visceral and deep. "He didn't care about credit," his family said in a statement. "He didn't care about self-promotion. He cared about the vulnerable. He cared about fairness."

Gants had a heart attack 10 days before his fatal one, and he was under doctors' orders to rest. It was consistent with his stubborn work ethic that the morning he died, he was on the phone with Boston attorney Susan Finegan, with whom he had collaborated closely on justice-related issues for a decade. "He called me to discuss his deep concern about the looming eviction crisis," Finegan says, "which he had called 'the greatest access to justice challenge of our lifetime.'"

Yale Law School professor Harold Koh, one of Gants' oldest friends, remembers Gants repeating the words of the federal judge for whom Gants had clerked 40 years earlier. "We can't make the whole world fair," the judge told Gants, "but we can make one small piece of the world a place where fairness, justice and civility rule." Gants told Koh long ago that he intended to live his life according to that precept, and he kept his word.

Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast. To find out more about Jeff Robbins, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

Photo credit: QuinceCreative at Pixabay

Like it? Share it!

  • 1

Jeff Robbins
About Jeff Robbins
Read More | RSS | Subscribe