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Donald Grant, 83, among first to serve on Mass. Appeals Court

DONALD R. GRANT DONALD R. GRANT (file globe 1967)

Adorned usually with nothing more than an ashtray, a pack of Marlboros, and a single yellow pad, the desk of Donald R. Grant was perhaps the tidiest in Boston's legal community. He had a mind just as orderly, which was quickly apparent to colleagues whose written opinions he sharpened with his pen.

"He was the best editor I've ever seen in my life," said Christopher J. Armstrong, former chief justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. "By which I mean he could take a draft opinion that one of us had written and by a few deft moving of phrases and sticking in a few words and taking out a few words he would say what we were trying to say a lot better than we did."

One of the original six justices named in 1972 to the newly formed Massachusetts Appeals Court, Judge Grant died of congestive heart failure Wednesday in his Wolfeboro, N.H., home, according to Rudolph Kass, a former justice on the court. Judge Grant was 83 and had previously lived in Lexington and Concord.

"You really end up as a generalist with your finger in all sorts of pies and become familiar with all areas of law," Judge Grant told the Globe in 1988, just after retiring. "It's a great learning process, because no matter what your experience has been, you're going to get your nose rubbed into a new area. I found it very worthwhile and very rewarding. And I'd do it again."

Judge Grant drafted the rules of the Appeals Court and wrote its style manual. He also wrote his share of opinions and then some: 1,152 decisions from the day he was sworn in until he retired 16 years and eight days later. In one 12-month period he penned 173 decisions, then a record for the court.

He graduated from Deerfield Academy and from Amherst College. During World War II he served in the Navy and left as a lieutenant. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1950 and spent a year clerking for the Supreme Judicial Court.

Much of his career was at Ropes & Gray, the law firm he joined in 1951. Quickly establishing a reputation for sharp analysis, Judge Grant was known for his mastery of "exotic writs," John M. Harrington Jr., a retired partner at the firm, wrote in a recollection. "But he was no antiquarian or pettifogger. He understood procedures to be useful tools for the analysis of claims, defenses, and issues, and so he employed them."

Judge Grant became a partner in 1961 and was appointed in 1972 to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, created that year to lessen the caseload at the SJC. Generous with his time when a colleague sought advice, Judge Grant became a cornerstone of the new appellate venue.

"He was one of the truly dominant figures of the original court," said Armstrong, who also was one of the first six justices. "I think he did more to shape how we do things than any other person."

In his written tribute, Kass pointed out that Judge Grant's editing of opinions could at times seem enthusiastic.

"Judges who received drafts back from him full of editorial balloons grumbled that Grant would edit 'The Lord's Prayer' if you gave it to him," Kass wrote. "On one draft he wrote, 'I must have spent more time editing this than you spent writing it.' In the end, we appreciated the punishment because it improved the work product of the court."

Never dour, though, Judge Grant helped keep in place a network of judges and lawyers in Boston who exchanged and passed along jokes, often in phone calls. "He had a kind of taste for acerbic and ribald humor and a good sense of irony," Kass said.

Judge Grant and Allan M. Hale, the Appeals Court's first chief justice, were pilots, a shared pastime that drew the two together in the early years of the court.

"They would fly to Nantucket and have lunch and come back," Armstrong said. "It's the sort of thing you can do if you have a pilot's license and you're into a lot of little airports."

On work days, all of the justices often walked together to lunch. The task was physically challenging for Judge Grant, who was afflicted with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, an inherited neurological disorder that made it necessary for him to use crutches.

"Never once did he complain," Armstrong said. "He showed tremendous courage as the disease progressed. Eventually it led to him not being able to fly anymore, which was an enormous disappointment, yet we never heard of that disappointment from him."

He was stoic, too, when his wife, Ruth, became ill and died in 1982. A smoker who went through three packs a day, Judge Grant abruptly quit when it was clear it would affect his wife's health.

"In an extraordinary illustration of his self-discipline, he turned the ashtray on his desk upside down, stuck a pack of Marlboros in his shirt pocket, quit, and never smoked again," Kass wrote.

Ten days before retiring, Judge Grant married Abigail Close Fletcher, a longtime friend who has since died. He spent much of his retirement in Wolfeboro, where he had spent summers while on the court.

"He used to say the reason he was so disciplined and got his work done was because he enjoyed his summers," Armstrong said. "He would walk off a month after the June sitting with nothing to do for July and August. And he had a grand time for himself while the rest of us worked all summer to finish our opinions to try to get them out of the way before we started again in September."

Judge Grant leaves a daughter, Sally of Acton.

There will be no service.

Correction: The obituary yesterday of Judge Donald R. Grant incorrectly said his wife, Abigail, had predeceased him. Abigail Grant lives in Greensboro, N.C.