In a decision that could reshape the state's political landscape, the Supreme Judicial Court said yesterday that the embattled Clean Elections Law must be funded or removed from the books.
The ruling revives a campaign finance reform measure that was widely considered dead on Beacon Hill, after incumbent legislators repeatedly refused to fund it, despite voters' overwhelming approval of the measure in 1998.
By all but ensuring that candidates will be able to run for state office with public financing this fall, the court has added a major twist to this year's governor's race - and, potentially, scores of statewide and legislative races across the Bay State.
''The people of Massachusetts, in the battle for campaign finance reform, just won the Super Bowl today,'' said Warren E. Tolman, a former state senator who is pinning his gubernatorial hopes on Clean Elections funding. ''I'm absolutely elated.''
The SJC, in a 5-to-2 decision, ruled that the Legislature violated the Constitution by neither funding nor repealing Clean Elections. Next Friday, the court will accept legal briefs and consider several remedies to put the law into effect.
''The Legislature is constitutionally required to appropriate the funds necessary to its operation,'' the majority opinion said. ''To date, the Legislature has not satisfied its constitutional obligation.''
The justices also said they would consider suspending all elections in Massachusetts until the Legislature either repeals or funds the measure.
The case has been closely watched not only because of its implications for candidates and their campaigns, but also because it forced the high court, which has traditionally resisted involving itself in legislative affairs, to grapple with whether to preserve a law widely despised by incumbent legislators.
Joining in the majority were Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and Justices John M. Greaney, Roderick L. Ireland, Martha B. Sosman, and Robert J. Cordy. Their decision is not likely to be appealed in federal court because the case centers on state constitutional matters.
Justices Judith A. Cowin and Francis X. Spina dissented, saying the court is overstepping its reach by interfering in political affairs. They wrote that the court cannot order money to be appropriated and that the administration can't spend funds without legislative approval, except in emergencies.
''The Legislature has acted within its constitutional prerogative in refusing to fund the Clean Elections Law, and it is not for the judicial branch to attempt to override it,'' they said in the opinion, which was written by Cowin.
But the majority found that the state Constitution leaves the Legislature with just two options regarding ballot initiatives approved by voters: either repeal them or fully fund them. The court found that the Legislature, through inaction on Clean Elections, was violating the Constitution.
The court suggested that it may appropriate the money on its own, or allow the Swift administration to make Clean Elections money available without the consent of the Legislature.
A repeal attempt appears unlikely to prevail. A majority vote in the House and Senate would be required for a repeal, but both houses would need two-thirds to override a veto by Acting Governor Jane Swift, who supports the law.
House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, a staunch opponent of Clean Elections, declined to comment. But Finneran's election laws committee chairman, Joseph F. Wagner, who has frequently spoken for the speaker on Clean Elections questions, said the House should try to repeal the law, especially with the slowing economy.
''Given the state's financial situation, the decision is easier and easier,'' said Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat. ''Do we take the money from our schools? Where do we take money from when we don't have money?''
But Wagner questioned whether two-thirds of House and Senate members would support a repeal. House Clean Elections supporters said enough members would stand up to oppose any such move.
And Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham, who has been more supportive of the law than Finneran, suggested that any repeal attempt probably would die in the Senate. In a prepared statement, Birmingham said the SJC ''indicates it is still possible for Massachusetts to provide public financing of campaigns.''
Other political leaders were still trying to interpret the ruling yesterday.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin decided that, with this year's election schedule in doubt, he will not release nominating papers to candidates for this year's elections until after the court has concluded its case. The nomination papers, the first hurdle candidates must clear to earn a spot on the ballot, were scheduled to be turned in Feb. 12.
State Democratic Party chairman Philip Johnston said he might postpone the Democratic caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 2, to allow lawyers for the party, candidates, and potential delegates to assess the full impact of the court's decision. A decision ''based on fairness'' will be made next week, he said.
Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, whose office defended the state in the court case, said the SJC ''has made clear that the Legislature's duty is to either fund or repeal the Clean Elections Law.''
''As a Clean Elections supporter, I personally hope that the Legislature decides to fund the law and avoid a further constitutional showdown,'' Reilly said.
The Clean Elections Law, approved by a 2-to-1 ratio, allows legislative and statewide candidates to qualify for public money if they agree to strict spending and fund-raising limits. Clean Elections candidates can accept contributions of only $100 or less, and they must demonstrate political viability by reaching a fund-raising threshold before they're eligible for state cash.
The law also permits candidates to opt to run under the traditional campaign finance system, which permits contributions of up to $500, and sets no ceiling on how much a candidate raises and spends.
The Legislature set aside $23 million for the system two years ago. But legislative leaders repeatedly resisted attempts to formally appropriate that money so that political candidates could use it. Many legislators called the measure an unwise use of public money and some feared it would attract waves of new challengers to Beacon Hill politics.
When legislative leaders released their fiscal 2002 budget in November and once again did not release money for the law, a coalition of campaign reformers took the case to the SJC.
Among the plaintiffs were Tolman and six other candidates for office, 21 voters, and a range of organizations, including Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections, Common Cause Massachusetts, and the Republican and Green parties.
Even some advocates, however, were skeptical about a court appeal, because the SJC has shied away from confronting the Legislature on major issues, stymieing earlier efforts to limit their salaries and terms of office. But advocates argued before the court that the case was a bellwether test of the integrity of the ballot initiative process, saying if lawmakers could undo the voters' will on measures like Clean Elections, it would render the referendum process meaningless.
Yesterday's decision left them elated. At a hastily arranged State House press conference, they shared hugs and grinned widely. Pointedly, they held the event outside the House chamber, where they have suffered some of their most bitter defeats in recent years.
''We're obviously very happy, to say the least,'' said David Donnelly, director of Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections. ''We will continue to fight. Obviously, we're not there yet.''
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company