With profound sadness and a deep sense of loss, we write about the passing of our Commission Co-Chair, our leader, and our friend, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants.
Chief Justice Gants’ contributions to the law, to society, and to humanity are broad-reaching and manifold. Focusing on his work with the Commission, we share examples of his vision, his collaborative spirit, and his work ethic in tribute to the profound impact his life’s work has had and, we hope, will continue to have on the quest for a legal system and a community that provide access to justice for all.
With an innate sense for justice and an understanding that legal decisions alone cannot secure and maintain justice, Chief Justice Gants dedicated tremendous time to the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, serving as Co-Chair from 2010-2015 and again as Co-Chair with Attorney Susan M. Finegan from 2017 until his death. True to his commitment, the Chief’s final hours were spent working with others on the looming eviction crisis brought on by the COVID 19 crisis; it was, he believed, “the greatest access to justice challenge of our lifetime.” Over the course of his leadership, and always in collaboration with others, the Commission achieved far-ranging change, identifying the value of and need for Court Service Centers, increasing funding for legal services, highlighting the negative impact on self-represented litigants caused by prohibition of cell phones in courthouses, piloting eviction diversion services, supporting pro bono innovations that have significantly enhanced pro bono engagement, and, most recently, convening a Commission COVID-19 Task Force, which brought together hundreds of volunteers to respond to the particular challenges of accessing justice and connecting those in need with resources during the pandemic. Chief Justice Gants believed in “doing,” as the long list of Commission accomplishments reflects, and he also believed in the power and importance of vision. He drew on his own ability to identify a problem and imagine a solution and, equally important, the Chief sought out other experts and listened intently to their ideas. As his Co-Chair, Susan M. Finegan noted, “[O]ne of his true geniuses was his ability to get the best out of people; he engaged deeply in the work with them and then applied his laser focus, dry sense of humor, and astonishing work ethic to the mix. … And, in his brilliant way of cajoling and collaborating, he amassed a devoted cadre of civil justice advocates with whom he worked to accomplish some things that people said were impossible to do.”
Chief Justice Gants’ leadership extended beyond the Commonwealth. He was deeply involved with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) and a founding co-chair of its Justice for All (“JFA”) Initiative, which seeks to provide 100 percent access to civil justice and provides funding for states to develop strategic action plans and pilot new ideas. Under the JFA Initiative, Massachusetts garnered funding to develop our own Strategic Action Plan, and to pilot projects exploring new approaches in housing stability and consumer debt defense. Further, as noted by Danielle Hirsch, Principal Court Management Consultant with the NCSC, under Chief Justice Gants’ tenure as chair of the Conference of Chief Justices/Conference of State Court Administrators (“CCJ/COSCA”) Access and Fairness Committee, the “CCJ/COSCA passed a number of important resolutions, including the foundational ‘Justice for All’ resolution in 2015 and the new racial equity resolution in 2020.”
Chief Justice Gants took time to praise the work and accomplishments of others, but he did not linger in celebration. The visionary always had his eye on the next challenge and was eager to get to it. As we move forward, we take time to honor Chief Justice Gants and to mourn his passing – he was and remains a giant for justice. Then we must continue the work he knew that he alone could not accomplish. Chief Justice Gants built a strong network of “doers” and, collectively, we will continue to move toward a more just and more accessible justice system.