Baker eyes process to address shaken high court

Gov. Charlie Baker will now need to nominate two justices to the Supreme Judicial Court following Chief Justice Ralph Gants’s death, and Baker said Tuesday that it is too soon for him to consider how he will tackle that task.

Fellow Justice Barbara Lenk is set to depart the court this year when she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70. She postponed her final day from Aug. 17 to Dec. 1, giving the Baker administration more time to vet possible candidates.

The governor will now need to make that decision alongside selecting another justice to bring the state’s highest court back up to seven sitting members — all of whom will have been tapped by Baker once the process is complete.

“Honestly, given the short timeframe between hearing the news — it’s only been 24 hours — on Justice Gants, we haven’t thought much yet about next steps,” Baker told reporters at an event in Fitchburg. “There is a process, and obviously we will — we need a few days to figure that out.”

In Baker’s first public appearance since associate justices announced Monday that Gants died at the age of 65, the governor described shock and sorrow at the loss of “a really bright light.”

Gants played soccer almost every weekend, Baker recalled, describing the judge as someone who “just radiated energy, kinetic energy.” Both he and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito had expected Gants to return to work soon enough after he experienced a heart attack more than a week ago.

“You spend any time at all around him, and the guy was alive — and I mean really alive in every sense of that word — which is why I think, for those of us who have worked with him and know him, this is such a shocking and in some ways overwhelming event,” Baker said.

Baker said he ordered both the state and American flag to be lowered to half-mast until further notice to honor Gants’s legacy.

State courthouses will also be closed to the public on Friday in a “day of remembrance” the SJC’s associate justices planned in Gants’s honor.

“On that day, courthouses across the Commonwealth will be closed to enable the judiciary and those impacted by this tragedy to reflect on this incalculable loss to the people of the Commonwealth and to remember Chief Justice Gants’ commitment to fairness, equality under the law, and justice for all,” the justices said.

Once Baker chooses new justices, they will be reviewed by the Governor’s Council, a panel of elected officials who vet and usually confirm the administration’s judicial nominees.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who serves ex officio on the council and chairs its assemblies, said Tuesday that members of the panel remembered Gants as “dedicated” and “a man of integrity.”

She praised Gants for being “hands-on” in his work as chief justice and as an administrator, particularly during debate on criminal justice reform and in the process of reopening trial courts during the pandemic.

“It’s a very sad day, not only for his family and his friends, but his colleagues in the Trial Court and for us here in the commonwealth,” Polito said.

(Copyright (c) 2020 State House News Service.