Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants
delivered the keynote address at the 32nd Annual Labor &
Employment Law Spring conference, giving attendees an inside view
of the workings at the state's highest court.
The conference, held June 6 at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston,
featured a daylong series of programs, followed by an afternoon
reception co-sponsored by the General Practice, Solo & Small
Gants told the audience that he'd promised conference organizers
not to devote his speech on the court systems' well-documented
budget hurdles -- which he occasionally managed to work in
"Indeed, the infrastructure of our courts is at risk … but I
shall not speak about that," said Gants, who later added: "And I
will not encourage you to contact your legislators because the next
round of cuts will be catastrophic."
Aside from an occasional reference to budget calamities, he
focused on explaining the caseload, schedule and responsibilities
of the justices. He said that the weekend before a sitting,
justices are reading roughly 3,000 pages of briefs for between 16
and 20 cases they're considering hearing. A "reciting judge" will
lead the discussion on an individual case and make recommendations
to the group, though he noted that it is the practice of the
current SJC for every justice to read up on each case.
"It is the practice of our court to read the entirety of what's
before us," he said, noting that each justice's familiarity with
each case often makes it difficult for the attorneys arguing before
the court to finish a statement before the questions begin.
A criticism of the Court, he said, is that the justices are
perceived as having made up their minds before oral arguments are
presented, but Gants said that is not the case. While justices may
have "a preliminary view" of a case before hearing arguments, the
first time the justices discuss cases as a group comes only after
hearings, when they sit "ensemble."
"If you think your oral argument is only a formality, in the vast
majority of cases, it is not," he said.
After the chief justice assigns one of the justices to write the
ruling, they have about two or three weeks to finish, Gants
"It's not nearly as much time as I thought," he said, describing
the back-and-forth revisions the justices go through with their law
clerks. (Gants said he has not broken from his habit of always
writing a first draft himself.)
There's also a substantial amount of the background reading done
before deciding which cases the SJC will hear, he said, noting that
he spent part of his son's graduation weekend reading some 20
Appeals Court decisions.
"It's a little bit like searching for gold," he said. "One
generally has to sift through a lot that is not gold to find
Until the Court's final sitting in May, the justices keep "a
rather relentless pace," he said.
Gants described the ways in which cases make it before the SJC,
including further appellate review and direct appellate review,
sua sponte cases in matters of "significant" legal
consequence, and cases by right -- including first degree murder
cases. "Friday is murder day at the SJC. It can be quite a grisly
He explained some differences between the SJC, which handles
between 160 and 180 cases a year, and the U.S. Supreme Court, which
handles about five dozen, he said. The SJC's justices are also not
as critical of each other, or as predictable, as those on the
"We have been, and I trust, will continue to be a collegial court.
We generally don't attack the author of a decision," he said,
referring to public criticism exchanged between justices Antonin
Scalia and retired Justice John Paul Stevens.
"And unlike the Supreme Court, we are much less predictable about
where we will end up [with our decisions]," Gants said.
Finally, he answered audience questions, advising those appearing
before the Court not to cite rulings from states which have
different laws ("It's interesting to know what Mississippi is
doing - unless the statute is different.")
One audience member asked why there's been so little guidance from
the SJC on noncompete issues.
"I know full well how little guidance there is on noncompetes,"
Gants said, noting that it was one of the reasons the Business
Litigation Session was created. "We're not running from noncompete
cases, but in general, they just don't get [to the SJC]."
Finally, Gants was asked how technology has changed the
"Not nearly enough," he said, giving an example of how law clerks
will sometimes take work home because their computers are faster.
He finished the session by referencing the subject that he was
asked not to speak about -
"We have a lot of great ideas [for using technology], but we don't
have the money for them," he said.