Adding "chief" won’t change the justice

Issue June 2014 By Douglas K. Sheff

Many years ago, when I shared a brown-bag luncheon at the Thorndike Library with then Superior Court Judge Ralph Gants, along with several other dedicated justices, I don't think either of us could have envisioned that the thoughtful, humble man I was talking with would one day be named chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court. Now that it has actually happened, I could not be more proud of him or more excited for all of us.

Since those first informal meetings, I've had the good fortune to work with Justice Gants on many projects and grown to know him better as a jurist and as a friend. I can say without reservation that, like us, Justice Gants is someone who is committed to making sure the underrepresented receive justice in our system.

Just look at some of Justice Gants' laudable accomplishments on the Access to Justice Commission, especially as they relate to support for those less fortunate who are in need of legal assistance. He is responsible for the $51 opt-out attorney registration fee under SJC Rule 4:03, as well as the fee for pro hac vice appearances under SJC Rule 3:16 - fees which together generate approximately $1.5 million per year for legal services for the poor.

Justice Gants has also established a pilot program of court service centers in Boston and Greenfield, which is expected to expand statewide. He spearheaded a legislative effort to expand the Housing Court to provide access for the 31% of Massachusetts residents who are presently denied same because of where they live.

As a member of the Supreme Judicial Court Pro Bono Committee, Justice Gants has been working on new pro bono initiatives, including a provision which allows for pro bono work here in the commonwealth by lawyers not admitted in Massachusetts.

The list goes on. No other judge I know of has done so much for those in need. Many talk about access to justice but Justice Gants gets it done. He is unprecedented in his accomplishments, efficient in his use of resources and extremely effective at seeing initiatives followed through to successful completion.

Like Justice Gants, the Massachusetts Bar Association has never changed its commitment to justice and fairness. From representing marathon survivors, including those with invisible injuries like traumatic brain injury (TBI), to feeding the less fortunate over Thanksgiving, our accomplishments this past year have carried on the MBA's storied history of representing the underrepresented.

Our shared values are why the MBA and Justice Gants have always worked well together. I know our working relationship will grow even stronger, because Justice Gants hasn't changed, and neither will we.

Just last summer, before my presidency started, Justice Gants and I got together for a brief bench/bar walk, where we decided to bring judges and attorneys together by reinstituting the brown-bag luncheons. We conduct them regularly with the SJC. The MBA is now attempting to establish them with every court, and with our ever-committed clerks, as well.

You see, Justice Gants is not only a champion of access to justice; he is also a champion of lawyers' access to our courts. That's why I invited him to be the first guest speaker of the year at our House of Delegates. He honored us there and continues to do so through his participation at many other MBA events.

Justice Gants has always been a justice of superior intellect, but he has never been constrained by the walls of an ivory tower. He does not know the meaning of arrogance. He is the most compassionate and able judge I know, and I am not alone in my opinions.

Justice Gants will soon be Chief Justice Gants, but I have no doubt that he will remain the same brilliant, humble, accessible person he was so many years ago over our first brown-bag lunch.