Chief justice nominee discusses sentencing, drug treatment

FILE - In this Dec. 1, 2008 file photo, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, left, looks on as Justice Ralph Gants speaks at the Statehouse in Boston after Patrick announced Gants would replace retiring state Supreme Judicial Court Justice John Greaney. On Thursday, April 17, 2014, Patrick nominated Gants to serve as chief justice of the state's highest court. If approved, he would succeed Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, who announced in March that he would be retiring in July. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole, File)

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 28, 2014…. Supreme Judicial Court chief justice nominee Ralph Gants would like to see the courts become better at problem solving, and move towards more individualized sentences for those convicted, he told members of the Governor’s Council Wednesday during his confirmation hearing.

Gants would like to see judges be able to craft sentences that are appropriate to the crime and the individual, but mandatory sentences get in the way of that, he said.

In other states, there is a move away from mandatory sentences – something Gants thinks should be happening in Massachusetts. Public sentiment on sentencing, particularly in drug cases, is shifting, he said, largely because what has been done is not working.

“I have been there, having to impose sentences I thought were longer than I thought appropriate,” he said.

After listening for six hours to witnesses testify for and against his nomination last week, Gants got his chance to speak before the eight-member panel that vets all judicial nominees. Gov. Deval Patrick nominated him in April to replace Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, who plans to retire in July as he nears the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Gants has served on the SJC since 2009 after he was elevated from the state Superior Court. Former Gov. William Weld appointed Gants to the Superior Court bench in 1997.

As a Superior Court judge for 11 years, Gants said he became very familiar with the effects of drug addiction on someone’s life and the role drugs play in the courts. The vast majority of criminal cases stem from a defendant’s drug abuse, Gants said.

The courts cannot be problem-solvers unless the system is prepared to address drug addiction, he said. Yet, the courts cannot do it alone, and need support from the Legislature and the governor to provide drug treatment centers.

“I hope there is now the political will to provide the necessary resources,” he said.

A spike in the number of drug overdoses and deaths spurred lawmakers to approve additional state funds for new drug and specialty courts. In March Patrick declared a public health emergency around the opiate epidemic, and in his budget, the governor asked the Legislature to allocate $2.7 million to create five more drug courts and three other courts to deal with mental health issues.

Gants answered questions about the death penalty cautiously, saying the issue could someday come before the SJC if the Legislature decides to enact a law instituting it.

Rather than discuss his specific thoughts, Gants said when the Legislature came close to passing the death penalty back in the early 1990s, he worked with a group of private attorneys to articulate arguments against it.

On gay marriage, Gants said, “The Goodridge decision is settled law much like Brown vs. the Board of Education is settled law,” and he does not expect it to come up before the state’s highest court again.

Gants has been a judge in Massachusetts for 17 years. At 59 years old, he is the youngest member of the SJC, and if confirmed could be chief justice for a decade. During his 33-year legal career, he worked in the U.S. Attorney’s office; as an assistant to the director of the F.B.I.; and as a defense attorney focused white collar crime at the Boston law firm Palmer & Dodge.

Chief Justice Ireland said last week he fully supports Gants replacing him. The court will experience a significant amount of turnover in the next few years as other justices reach retirement age, and Gants will be the right person to lead the court, Ireland said.

By tapping a sitting member of the court, Patrick will likely get the chance to make at least one more appointment to the high court before he leaves office. The governor has already appointed four of the court’s seven justices – Gants, Justices Margot Botsford, Barbara Lenk, and Fernande Duffly. When he nominated Gants, Patrick said he would wait until he was confirmed before nominating another judge to the SJC.

Gants was born in New Rochelle, N.Y. and studied economics at Harvard University, earning a bachelor’s degree. He received his law degree from Harvard before going on to clerk for United States District Court Judge Eugene Nickerson.

In describing his judicial philosophy, Gants said he believes state statute should be interpreted in a way that is faithful to the Legislature’s intention, and he described the state constitution as a “living, breathing document,” meant to endure for generations and therefore “must adapt to changing circumstances and to our evolving understanding of the meaning of due process and equity under the law.”

When asked how he will fare lobbying the Legislature on behalf of the courts, Gants said he would attempt to persuade the governor and lawmakers that things that are important to the courts are also important to them.

“We managed to do that with community courts,” he said.

The court system was cut severely in during the recent recession, Gants said. “It was not pretty in 2009, 2010, as you know. We were holding things together with duct tape,” he said.

“I do understand community courts are an important part of what we do,” he added.

The nomination hearing resume next Wednesday when the council plans to continue questioning Gants.

Councilor Robert Jubinville asked questions for more than three hours. Other council members took lengthy turns. While discussing the need to go to a third day for the hearing, Councilor Marilyn Devaney said, “This is the most important vote this council will ever take.”

Ireland’s confirmation hearing took place on one day.

Councilor Christopher Iannella said the council’s next formal assembly is June 11, which he said is the earliest that a vote could occur on the Gants nomination.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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