By Andy Metzger and Matt Murphy

State House News Service

BOSTON -- Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ralph Gants will appear before the Governor's Council on May 21 for a hearing on his confirmation to the post of chief justice after Gov. Deval Patrick tapped the veteran judge last week to become the next leader of the state's highest court.

The Governor's Council, which vets and confirms the governor's judicial nominations, scheduled the 10 a.m. hearing at its Wednesday meeting, giving the council four weeks to talk with Gants, pore over his judicial record, study his decisions and craft questions in preparation for the interview.

Councilors Marilyn Devaney and Christopher Iannella, the only two remaining from the last time Gants appeared before the Governor's Council, were the only two of the eight-person, elected council who told the News Service unequivocally that they supported Gants' nomination.

Devaney, who will preside over Gants' confirmation hearing, had high praise for the justice whom she has twice voted to confirm to the bench, first as a Superior Court judge in 1997 and then as an SJC justice in 2009. If confirmed, Gants would replace Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, who plans to step down July 25 as he approaches the mandatory retirement age later this year.

"I'm so excited. I believe, and the governor knows, in promoting from within instead of bringing someone in and he's earned it the old fashioned way and I'm very pleased," Devaney said.

Devaney had initially intended to seek a May 14 hearing, but other members of the eight-person council requested additional time.

"There's no rush here. Justice Ireland is on the bench until July 25. It's an SJC pick, appointed for life. This isn't a district-court position. These folks can rewrite the law so we got to make sure we get it right," said Councilor Jennie Caissie, an Oxford Republican.

Devaney said Gants has the right combination of "temperament" and qualifications to lead the high court. Gants, of Lexington, resides in Devaney's district, giving her the distinction of presiding over his confirmation hearing.

"He listens and he's very low-key and down to earth. Besides the qualifications and experience, he's just a good person and I know that all his colleagues are pleased and have such respect for him. It's going to be good," Devaney said.

Saying she wants to review the roughly 120 decisions Gants has written over the past five years, Caissie raised two SJC decisions that could surface during his hearing.

In 2010, Gants wrote for the majority in a split 4-3 ruling that found sex offenders on probation could not be forced to abide by new restrictions such as GPS monitoring unless they violated the initial terms of their probation. Ireland wrote the dissenting opinion.

Caissie also mentioned a case in which the SJC ruled against a petitioner who argued that his Second Amendment rights were being violated because the state had denied him a permit to carry a firearm because of a juvenile felony conviction.

"I think there have been some cases that have come down from the SJC in the last few years that have caused some folks some concern. I want to take a look at those and see where he was," Caissie said. "At this juncture, I don't have an opinion."

Councilor Terrence Kennedy said he is leaning in favor of Gants.

"I've been in front of Gants a lot in Superior Court and I found him to be a great judge," said Kennedy, in a phone interview. He said, "I'm open-minded. I've got some questions for him."

Kennedy said in the courtroom Gants "just got it," but Kennedy said he has a mixed opinion of Gants' written decisions, disagreeing with some of his rulings on rape cases. Kennedy said he also wants to see how Gants plans to lead the court.

"I don't like the direction the courts are going," Kennedy said. He said there is not enough emphasis on making the right rulings and too much emphasis on clearing the workload, saying, "It's all about moving dockets and I don't think that's how a criminal justice system should work."

Kennedy also critiqued the burgeoning use of specialty courts for veterans, guns and defendants with mental health issues, saying that with increased training those circumstances can be handled in a regular court. Gants, at press conference last week introducing him as the governor's nominee, praised the expanded use of specialty courts. Drug courts have some utility, Kennedy said.

Councilor Michael Albano said Gants' career in the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- where he was special assistant to the director in the early 1980s -- and the U.S. Attorney's Office -- where he became chief of the public corruption division in Boston -- caused him some concern.

"I consider myself a liberal-progressive and I'm going to examine his record closely," Albano said. He said, "I don't know how you go from U.S. Attorney's Office to advocate for civil rights, and I'm going to ask Judge Gants that."

The former mayor of Springfield, Albano said the Gants decision is "probably the most important decision of my public service career," noting it could have a major impact on the state's highest court for more than a decade.

Councilor Robert Jubinville said he wants to research decisions written by Gants, and noted that Gants was a federal prosecutor during the period when notorious mobster James "Whitey" Bulger had a relationship with federal law enforcement. Gants' bio lists his career as a federal prosecutor from 1983 to 1991 when he joined the law firm then known as Palmer & Dodge.

"He's been a pretty prolific writer up there," Jubinville said. He said he couldn't predict the outcome of the council's vote and said, "Sometimes the more you delve in, you find out more about the person."

Councilor Oliver Cipollini has questions planned and wants to do more research on the nominee.

"He has some different persuasions and different... alliances," Cipollini told the News Service. Declining to elaborate and saying he has more research to do, Cipollini said, "Let me just keep it there."

Cipollini said he planned to ask Gants about gay marriage, and wants to know how he will steer the courts as a long-awaited pay raise could trigger retirements this summer.

"How is he going to help in keeping the courts running, in keeping the morale," said Cipollini, who also noted his "pro-life" stance.

The eight-member, elected Governor's Council is markedly different from the body that unanimously confirmed then-Justice Roderick Ireland to the position of chief justice in December 2010. Devaney and Iannella are the only councilors who took part in that vote.

Gants will hit his mandated retirement age of 70 on Sept. 29, 2024, according to the birth date on file with the Governor's Council.

Nominated for a Superior Court judgeship by Gov. William Weld, Gants took a judicial seat vacated by Justice Francis Spina, now a member of the SJC, and then a newly appointed member of the Appeals Court. Gants was confirmed to the Superior Court on Aug. 20, 1997, one week after Ireland was confirmed as an SJC justice, according to Governor's Council records.

Iannella said he was impressed by Gants and would be voting in favor of his confirmation.

"He's a great choice," Iannella said. He said, "I don't think he's going to have any problem whatsoever."

When he won confirmation to the SJC on Jan. 21, 2009, two of the eight councilors voted against Gants -- Carole Fiola and Thomas Foley. Fiola is now a state representative and Foley, a former state police official, ran unsuccessfully for Worcester County sheriff in 2010.

Councilor Eileen Duff was also praiseful of Gants, though she stopped short of committing to vote for him and said she believes he will be challenged. "I don't think he'll walk through this at all," Duff said. Duff said her initial impression of Gants is quite favorable, noting his "stellar credentials" and a "great reputation with lawyers and judges alike." Duff has not yet met with Gants.

"He's well-written. He's so thoughtful. I think he's a grand slam," Duff said.