Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants' first year on the Supreme
Judicial Court hasn't left him much free time. He likens it to a
different kind of footrace than his 11 years of service as a
Superior Court judge. "The Superior Court is more of a fast jog
with occasional sprints. This job is much more of a sprint-jog
cycle," he says.
Gants and his six fellow justices, adhering to a 2010-11
schedule set up in advance, sprint to prepare for sitting week,
which occurs at the beginning of every month, and again during the
two- to three-week period in which they write their cases, and then
again as they prepare edits of each other's cases before a midweek
consultation. Lawyers Journal caught him in a recent
Some other stats from the bench: SJC justices hear roughly 20
cases per sitting, each case with an appellant's brief, and
appellee's brief, a reply brief, one or more decisions from lower
courts, records to be reviewed, and other cases deemed important
from which the appellants cite. This runs to about 150 pages of
material, on average, for each case before the justices sit - 3,000
pages per sitting, with work beginning on the Thursday before the
"It takes a bite out of that weekend, as you may expect," says
Gants, who is married and has two children. "We don't schedule a
great deal of entertainment at home that weekend, unless you think
it's entertaining to watch me read."
Gants, appointed to the state's highest court by Gov. Deval
Patrick in January 2009, is clear-spoken, with a self-effacing
sense of humor. He puts his sentences together with "measure-twice,
cut-once" deliberateness. It's hard to imagine him majoring in
criminology and being a trial judge, which he was, but not as
difficult to imagine him as a teacher, which he was until taking
the SJC post. He keeps a hand in teaching during stints as a guest
lecturer at Northeastern Law School, where his wife is a law
"Justice Gants joins a hard-working, collegial appellate court,"
says Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall in an e-mail. "[H]is
contributions fit well with the other members of the Court in that
regard. His breadth of experience before joining the Court will
undoubtedly continue to be particularly helpful. Each time a new
justice joins an appellate court such as the Supreme Judicial
Court, where the justices sit en banc for almost all
cases, the presence of a new justice inevitably has an impact. The
presence of Justice Gants is no different in that regard. He is a
valued member of the Court."
Writing for the jury
Gants does not discuss particular cases in an interview.
However, he freely discusses the deliberative processes of the SJC
and what life is like on the bench. The collaborative process of
writing decisions on the SJC, in which the justices have all read
the same case, differs widely from the process in Superior Court,
where justices write solo. But in each instance, justices must keep
in mind the audience for whom they are writing.
"The craftsmanship at the [SJC] is problem-solving of a sort.
Every issue that comes to us is a legal problem that needs to be
resolved," he says. "But the products that we generate are legal
decisions and there is a great deal of craft involved in seeking to
write them, both to address the legal issue that is before us, to
attempt to provide language that is going to be clear enough that
it can be followed, sensible enough that it will work in practice,
and that will avoid setting forth careless language that will pose
a problem that we may not anticipate, or need to address in
In Superior Court, he recalls, jurors often telegraph their
confusion by their facial expressions when language in a legal
decision is hard to follow. He says his 11 years on the Superior
Court bench gave him a sense as to how legal issues work out in
practice - an advantage over someone who has not dealt with SJC
decisions over that span of time. "And having done that, I think,
makes me, I hope, a little more sensitive to making sure
that the law that we create not only is fair and sound, but also
sensible," and clear enough to provide adequate guidance for both
lawyers and juries.
The work of the SJC
The SJC selects a small share of the cases heard by the Appeals
Court. The only exception: First-degree murder cases, all of which
are heard by the SJC. Five justices sit on each of those, to spare
the single justice of the month from the extra work to prepare for
Single justice sessions are held each week throughout the year
for certain motions pertaining to cases on trial or on appeal, bail
reviews, bar discipline proceedings, petitions for admission to the
bar, and a variety of other proceedings, including emergency
matters. In the aggregate, the single justices decide approximately
600 cases annually.
The SJC gets 16 to 19 requests for cases labeled "further
appellate review" each month. These are cases that have already
been decided by the Appeals Court. Gants takes them home eight or
10 at a time, over the course of a month, and the Court takes about
five percent of them.
Another 10 requests are for direct appellate review, cases
decided by a trial court, but which come directly to the SJC rather
than the Appeals Court. The SJC takes a higher percentage of those
cases. Then, the SJC takes three to six cases from appellate courts
that its staff recommends.
Some cases are chosen because they raise legal issues
substantive enough that they should be decided by the highest
court. Others are chosen to resolve differences in rulings by lower
courts. Yet others are taken when the SJC decides to take a second
look at some of its prior precedents.
Preparation for oral arguments is comprehensive, he observes.
"If any attorneys actually understood how well prepared we were,
they would be extraordinarily heartened," he says. "Perhaps they
don't feel that way when there are four questions fired at them
before they've had a chance to finish their first sentence."
Words of advice
So, what words of advice would he give appellate attorneys?
"I would encourage them to focus on one or two issues, with
regard to challenging decisions [in lower courts], I would focus on
one or two reasons as to why the decision was ultimately unfair,"
In Gants' Superior Court days, he would read each day's motions
the night before in order to make the best use of the oral
argument. Consulting with one's judicial peers was infrequent, as
each judge was busy with his or her own docket. While he did not
expect to rule from the bench except in cases where the answer was
uncomplicated, he did expect to prepare a preliminary decision, as
did most of his peers.
However, at the SJC, the process is collaborative. At the end of
each day of sitting week, the justices meet in semble, and
each provides his or her preliminary view of how they think a
particular case will evolve. The chief justice then chooses the
designated author of the decision. Preparation for oral argument
includes not only a familiarity with the legal issues, but also the
need to come to a tentative view of what the decision should
"That requires not only a degree of focus, but also the
additional effort that's involved in moving from understanding the
issues to actually deciding them."
Sometimes the majority view changes if the author comes up with
a different approach and the other justices who originally
disagreed come to conclude that the author is right. Preliminary
views have consequence not only in the selection of the decision's
author, but what views of the matter perhaps should be incorporated
and addressed in the decision. The semble notes serve as
an indicator of what legal points to address, whether or not an
individual justice agrees with them.
"Then, with the blessing of having seven very bright, thoughtful
people presenting, is that you do get very valuable points of
view," he says.
The SJC justices, virtually all of whom Gants came to know
through their law school teaching activity, "get along very well,"
- a view that may or may not be shared by all appellate courts, he
adds. "We respectfully listen to each other's views [and] disagree
amicably. I can write a dissent and go for a walk at lunchtime with
that same justice, and then join with working with them on another
decision the next day."
The work methods of the justices differ greatly - some do
line-by-line edits, others hold onto the big picture. "Each of us
have been spared from error by our colleagues," he says.
Beyond the Bench
A key project for Gants is the Access to Justice Commission (see
May 2010 Lawyers Journal). Marshall tapped him to co-chair
the commission with attorney David W. Rosenberg. "The first thing I
said was that I am happy to do this work, but I want to make sure
that at the end of my tenure, there are accomplishments we can say
we were an important part of," he says.
The justices share numerous administrative responsibilities in
addition to the Court's adjudicative work, Marshall says in an
"As a new member of the Supreme Judicial Court, Justice Gants
expressed great interest in the work contemplated for the
newly-constituted Access to Justice Commission, which we decided
should be co-chaired by a member of the Court. The commission is
off to a running start. I am confident that under the leadership of
Justice Gants and his co-chair, David Rosenberg, the commission
will make significant contributions to the important work of
increasing the ability of all Massachusetts residents to have
access to our courts."
Gants has taught at three of the region's law schools, and says
he misses teaching. "It was an adjustment I made," he says.
Guest-lecture stints at his wife's law school classes at
Northeastern Law School keep him connected with students.
Teaching allows a legal perspective not always obtained from
judges, he says. "If you are teaching well, you are discussing the
evolution of principles which may have led to the most recent
holding and understanding how the U.S. Supreme Court got to that
ultimate resolution. … What happened before Miranda, for
instance, and how we managed to get to Miranda. And
what were the problems … that led to the court order that decided
Miranda, as opposed to just being able to read
Miranda and know what it says. … When you don't teach, you
don't do that."
Miranda, a bold decision at its inception, has grown in
importance over time, he notes. "It's now at the heart of our
constitution. Before, we thought it was simply a prophylactic
court-given rule; now, we believe it's of constitutional stature.
But that wasn't obvious in 1967. … If you don't know that history
or see the problems that generated that outcome, I don't know that
you have an understanding of what Miranda means."
Some things remain the same
Now that he is a justice on the state's highest court, which,
founded in 1692, is believed to be the oldest appellate court in
continuous existence in the Western hemisphere, do his friends
outside the SJC treat him differently?
"My answer is two words," he deadpans. "Sadly, no."