Death of Massachusetts chief justice creates second vacancy on state supreme court

Image of the John Adams Courthouse in Massachusetts

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants died while in office on September 14, 2020, causing a second vacancy in the state’s court of last resort. The other vacancy will occur on December 1, 2020, when Supreme Judicial Court Justice Barbara Lenk is scheduled to retire from the court, one day prior to reaching the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70 years old.

Chief Justice Gants was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by Governor Deval Patrick (D) in 2008 to replace retired Justice John Greaney. Gants assumed office on January 29, 2009. On April 17, 2014, Justice Gants was nominated by Gov. Patrick to serve as the chief justice of the court, effective following Chief Justice Roderick Ireland’s retirement on July 25, 2014. Gants’ term was scheduled to expire in 2024.

Chief Justice Gants earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College in 1976. He earned a diploma in criminology at Cambridge University in England. He earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1980. Gants served as a note editor with the Harvard Law Review.

The seven justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court are appointed by the governor and approved by the governor’s council. The Governor’s Council, also referred to as the Executive Council, is a governmental body that is constitutionally authorized to approve judicial appointments. The council consists of eight members who are elected every two years from each of the eight council districts. Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justices hold tenured appointments until they reach 70 years old, the age of mandatory retirement.

Founded in 1692, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is the state’s court of last resort and has seven judgeships. The court is the oldest continuously functioning appellate court in the Western Hemisphere. Originally called the Superior Court of Judicature, it was established in 1692. The court was renamed the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.

Following Gants’ death, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court included the following members:
• Barbara Lenk – Appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick (D) in 2011
• Frank M. Gaziano – Appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker (R) in 2016
• David A. Lowy – Appointed by Gov. Baker (R) in 2016
• Kimberly S. Budd – Appointed by Gov. Baker (R) in 2016
• Elspeth Cypher – Appointed by Gov. Baker (R) in 2017

• Scott Kafker – Appointed by Gov. Baker (R) in 2017

In 2020, there have been 21 supreme court vacancies in 16 of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. One vacancy occurred when a chief justice died, and 20 vacancies were caused by retirements. Twelve vacancies are in states where a Democratic governor appoints the replacement. Eight are in states where a Republican governor appoints the replacement. One vacancy is in a state where the state supreme court votes to appoint the replacement.

Additional reading
Ralph D. Gants
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
State supreme court vacancies, 2020