Voice of the Judiciary
Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope. . . .
Czeslaw Milosz, Incantation. Translated by Cseslaw Milosz and Robert Pinsky.
January 9, 2020: The question comes near the end of oral argument. “What is the obligation of the Court,” asks the Chief Justice, when defense counsel reports allegations of racism in jury deliberations that may have changed some votes to guilty? The Chief Justice repeats the question: “What’s a judge’s obligation” in such circumstances? The answer comes on September 24, 2020, ten days after his death. It is the obligation of a judge to address promptly any allegation that racial or ethnic bias may have infected the jury deliberations, the Chief Justice wrote. Commonwealth v. McCalop, 485 Mass. 790, 791 (2020). “A guilty verdict arising from racial or ethnic bias not only poses a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice,” he continued, “but also, ‘if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice.’” Id. (quoting Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 855, 868 (2017)).
Ralph D. Gants served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court from 2014 to 2020. McCalop, and several more of his final opinions, are exemplars of the tenets he held for guiding the Massachusetts judiciary. Each opinion is beautifully written, carefully reasoned. Each holds in equipoise the resolution of the case at hand, and the articulation of broader principles, signposts to ensure future decisions will be fair, just, and sensible. Each is a painful reminder of how much we have lost by his untimely death. Chief Justice Gants wrote to establish universal ideas in language; human reason guided his hand to write Truth and Justice with capital letters.
In two of Chief Justice Gants’ last opinions, the Court recommended changes to the Model Jury Instructions on Homicide. In Commonwealth v. Castillo, 485 Mass. 852 (2020), released on October 6, the Court set aside a conviction of murder in the first degree and reduced the degree of guilt to murder in the second degree because, the Chief Justice wrote, the Model Jury Instructions on the meaning of “extreme atrocity and cruelty” did not adequately distinguish between murder in the first and second degree. Id. at 854. “The defendant’s conduct—firing a single shot into the victim’s back—was stupid, senseless, and cowardly,” he wrote. Id. at 867. “Indeed, where it tragically caused the death of a young man, it was atrocious and cruel. . . . But extreme cruelty means that the defendant caused the person’s death by a method that surpassed the cruelty inherent in any taking of human life . . . . Nothing about the facts of this case suggests that the defendant’s conduct met that standard.” Id. at 867–68 (emphasis in original) (quotation and citation omitted). The Court included a new provisionally revised model jury instruction to better distinguish conduct that warrants a conviction of murder in the first degree from conduct that should result in a conviction of murder in the second degree. Id at 865–66, 869.
In Commonwealth v. Dunphe, 485 Mass. 871 (2020), released on October 7, Chief Justice Gants again authored an opinion vacating a conviction of murder in the first degree because of inadequate jury instructions, this time regarding the defendant’s criminal responsibility for the killing. The defendant, suffering from hallucinations and a false belief that the victim was his abusive father, had killed a fellow patient in a psychiatric ward. Id. at 872. The trial judge instructed the jury in a way “that closely tracked” the Model Jury Instructions. Id. Nevertheless, the Chief Justice wrote, there was a “significant risk” that the jury could misunderstand those instructions. Id. at 889. “What our case law declares, but our model jury instructions do not, is that if a defendant has a mental disease or defect, its origins are irrelevant: it does not matter whether the disease or defect arose from genetics, from a childhood disease or accident, from lead poisoning, from the use of prescription medication, or from the chronic use of alcohol or illegal drugs. . . . A drug-induced mental disease or defect still constitutes a mental disease or defect for purposes of a criminal responsibility defense.” Id. at 880–81 (citation omitted). “Intoxication from alcohol or the high from drugs is not a mental disease or defect where the loss of capacity ends when the effects of the alcohol or drug wear off; a mental disease or defect is something more enduring, reflecting something about the person’s brain chemistry that, although perhaps not permanent, is more than the transient effect of the person’s substance use,” he wrote. Id. at 880. The Court again included provisionally revised model jury instructions “to address what we conclude is a potential and problematic risk of confusion.” Id. at 873, 884–89.
As a final example, a district court judge’s ruling that a defendant violated a condition of probation by reporting on a sex offender registration form that his work address was his home—without also reporting as a work address a home in Lynn where he was doing repair work—came under scrutiny in Commonwealth v. Harding, 485 Mass. 843 (2020), released on October 5. The Court reversed in an opinion authored by the Chief Justice, where his search for what he would term “sensible” outcomes is clear: “The interpretation [of ‘work address’] that the Commonwealth asks us to adopt would suggest that a registrant who is self-employed might not be self-employed at all, because each client for whom the registrant provided services for the requisite time period would be deemed the employer, whose address the registrant would be required to record. No reasonable registrant filling out this form would understand the form to ask for this information. Nor would the Commonwealth’s interpretation make practical sense.” Id. at 847. “[I]f the defendant, or other self-employed registrants like him, were required to provide a client’s address as a ‘work address,’” he continued, “many clients who might otherwise hire him might refrain from doing so because they might not want their home address listed on SORB’s website as the sex offender’s place of employment. As a result, the otherwise self-employed sex offender might soon be functionally unemployed.” Id. at 849.
Ralph Gants ended his tenure as Chief Justice as he began it. In remarks delivered when he took the oath of office on July 28, 2014 he said: “I firmly believe that our judicial system will be in a better place in the next three, five, ten years. My confidence does not rest in my belief in me, because I know that I can accomplish none of this alone. My confidence rests in my belief in we, in what I call our justice team. . . . If we are willing to search for new ways to solve old problems, if we are willing to put our egos aside and remember that it is not about us, if we are willing to work our tails off, if we are willing to work together, I know that we can build a justice system that will not only dispense fair, sensible, and efficient justice, that will not only help to address the formidable problems faced by so many of the residents of this Commonwealth, but that will be a model for the nation and for the world.”
Ralph Gants searched for new ways to solve old problems. He worked his tail off. He put aside his ego and worked with others to build a model judicial system. In oft-cited remarks, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., then an Associate Justice on the Supreme Judicial Court, said: “The law is the calling of thinkers. But to those who believe with me that not the least godlike of man’s activities is the large survey of causes, that to know is not less than to feel, I say—and I say no longer with any doubt—that a man may live greatly in the law as well as elsewhere; that there as well as elsewhere his thought may find its unity in an infinite perspective; that there as well as elsewhere he may wreak himself upon life, may drink the bitter cup of heroism, may wear his heart out after the unattainable. . . .” Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants wore his heart out seeking to address the formidable problems faced by so many. He wreaked himself upon life. Why? He was simply being Ralph.
 The Justices first approved and recommended the use of Model Jury Instructions on Homicide in 1999. The Court issued revised Model Jury Instructions in 2013. In April 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court again released revised Model Jury Instructions on Homicide.
Margaret H. Marshall is Senior Counsel at Choate Hall & Stewart LLP. She served as Associate Justice (1996–1999) and as Chief Justice (1999–2010) of the Supreme Judicial Court.
Marina Pullerits is an Associate at Choate Hall & Stewart LLP. She served as a law clerk (2018–2019) to Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants.