In late December 2015, Justice Ralph D. Gants, the first Jewish chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in its 328-year history, spoke at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. It was a time of high-pitched anti-Muslim sentiment across the country.
“I asked to speak with you because I know this is a difficult time for persons who practice the Islamic faith in this country and I am here to assure you that you do not stand alone,” he told Muslim worshippers before their Friday afternoon prayers.
Gants noted that his Jewish ancestors – along with other groups of immigrants – also were unwelcome in the United States. He assured them that the Massachusetts Constitution would protect their rights to practice their faith.
Those stirring remarks were among the remembrances of the judge whose sudden death, at age 65, was announced on Sept. 14 by the SJC. He had been hospitalized after suffering a heart attack and undergoing surgery 10 days earlier.
“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 S. Robbins, a longtime friend of the judge. Robbins, who served as chairperson of the New England Anti-Defamation League, said that Gants spoke at many ADL programs.
“I am shocked and deeply saddened by the passing of Chief Justice Ralph Gants,” Gov. Charlie Baker said. “He was a dedicated public servant of the highest order and sought to do justice his entire 40-year legal career.” Baker ordered flags at all state buildings to be flown at half-staff. Courthouses across the state closed Friday, Sept. 18, in his honor.
Revered across the political spectrum as a giant in the judicial system, Gants was admired for his humility, compassion, wit, and devotion to pursuing equal justice.
Just days before he died, Harvard Law School issued a widely anticipated report on racial disparities in the state court system that Gants requested in 2016 after conferring with Martha Minow, then dean of the law school.
“He was fearless about facing historic injustices,” Minow told Harvard Law Today.
A graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School, the New Rochelle, New York-born Gants worked for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston and later in private practice. In 2009, after serving 11 years as a Superior Court judge, he was appointed associate justice of the Supreme Judicial Court. He was elevated to chief justice by former Gov. Deval Patrick in 2014.
He lived in Lexington with his wife, Deborah Ramirez, a law professor at Northeastern University, and also is survived by two children, Rachel Ramirez Gants and Michael Ramirez Gants.
“It is a devastating loss. We are still reeling,” Judge Mark Green, chief justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, said of the impact of Gants’ unexpected death. Green, a decades-long close personal friend of Gants, marveled at his leadership and energy. He launched countless initiatives to improve the workings of the courts and was passionate about leveling the playing field for those who would not otherwise have access to quality representation, Green said.
Green and his wife, Superior Court Judge Karen Green, were among a group of judges who visited Israel in June 2019 on a private trip Gants organized after a member of Israel’s Supreme Court visited Gants at his Boston office the year before.
The group met with their counterparts at Israel’s high court and visited historic sites, Ziv Medical Center in Safed, and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
For Gants, his first trip to Israel was very meaningful. The visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem was clearly a highlight, said Green, who snapped a photo of his friend at the holy site.
Rabbi Yosef Zaklos, of the Chabad of Downtown Boston, remembers working up the courage to invite Gants to be the lead speaker at a symposium on the Talmud and the law.
“He was very gracious,” Zaklos recalled.
For that session, in 2013, Gants chose to explore the issue of juvenile justice, a complex subject that was under review by the state’s highest court; he addressed the civil law and the rabbi presented the Talmudic perspective.
“I felt he was trying to broaden his view,” to understand what ancient legal systems had to say, Zaklos said.
Over the years, Zaklos brought the judge handmade matzo at Passover and honey cake for Rosh Hashanah. Last year, the judge led another Chabad-sponsored symposium on criminal justice reform.
He was inquisitive, very approachable, and generous with his time, Zaklos said.
“It’s a definite loss for all of us. He had a very good neshama,” using the Hebrew word for soul.