MBA Leaders Mourn the Passing of SJC Chief Justice Gants

Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020
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Photo Credit: Jeff Thiebauth
Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants

The Massachusetts legal community remains in mourning after the sudden passing of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants on Sept. 14 at age 65, who is being remembered as a uniquely gifted jurist with an abiding concern for others. Those defining qualities shined through in Gants’ long-standing collaboration with the Massachusetts Bar Association, as did his friendly demeanor and grounded nature, according to current and former MBA leaders.

As a fixture at MBA functions since becoming chief justice in 2014, Gants always made himself accessible to members of the bar and connected with many of them on a deeply personal level, said MBA President Denise I. Murphy. After their first meeting at an event hosted by the MBA, Murphy said Gants knew her name and sense of humor the next time they saw each other, which mirrored his intimate approach to bench-bar relations. 
“In every conversation you had with him, you felt as if you were the only person in the world,” Murphy said of Gants, who had ceremonially sworn in the last several MBA presidents and delivered memorable remarks each year at the MBA-sponsored State of the Judiciary Address. “He just made every interaction feel personal and warm. There was not an insincere bone in his body.” 

Gants later appointed Murphy to serve as co-chair of the SJC Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, recognizing her long-held interest in creating a more supportive environment for Massachusetts attorneys. He encouraged Murphy to pursue the same objective during her term as MBA president, expressing a shared belief in the importance of diversity and inclusion to the health of the legal profession. 

In forming a committee on lawyer well-being and commissioning a 2016 study just released by Harvard Law School on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, Gants demonstrated a progressive vision that Murphy hopes to emulate in the coming year.

“I think Chief Justice Gants’ gift to us is the knowledge that we should anticipate issues and constantly be on the lookout for ways to make things better, because that’s what he was always trying to do,” Murphy said.

MBA Immediate Past President John J. Morrissey, who experienced significant personal loss during his time in office, said Gants acted with great compassion and kindness in all of their interactions. In recent months, Gants continually asked how the SJC could improve on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic to better serve the needs of MBA members, as well as how Morrissey himself was coping with the health crisis. 

“Chief Justice Gants was a giant in the legal community in terms of legal scholarship, but more importantly, he was a kind and compassionate individual who took an interest in supporting all of us over the last year and beyond,” Morrissey said.

Past President Robert W. Harnais similarly praised Gants for his diligent efforts to build a more just system and his awareness that implementing such reforms required the input of the state bar.

“He wanted to make changes and improve the system, and he knew that you can’t do that in a vacuum. He did that by reaching out to bar associations,” Harnais said.

In addition to his focus on the current state of the legal community, Gants was heavily invested in the success of young lawyers around the commonwealth, having participated in the MBA Leadership Academy since its inception in 2016. According to Murphy, Gants viewed the program as a powerful tool in educating the next generation of bench-bar and civic leaders and ensuring continued growth in the profession. In a true sign of his character, Gants took time to acquaint himself with the attorneys in each academy class and always concluded the year with a personalized commencement address, Murphy said, noting that his loss has profoundly affected the alumni community.

To recognize Gants' exemplary service to the legal profession, the MBA had planned to present Gants with the Chief Justice Edward F. Hennessey Award at the 2020 Annual Dinner. Although the event was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, the MBA will seek out new ways to memorialize the late chief justice in the weeks and months ahead.

“Chief Justice Gants was a most deserving candidate for this award, and we will continue to honor his eternal legacy as a celebrated jurist and champion of access to justice,” said MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy. “This is a truly sad day for our profession and the people of Massachusetts as we mourn the loss of a remarkable man gone far too soon.”

Share your message of condolence or memory of Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants on the SJC’s memorial web page, here.