No finger-pointing at AG Martha Coakley over ruling
Defeat comes in many flavors, some far more bitter than others.
The state’s highest court handed Attorney General Martha Coakley the first of two high-profile legal setbacks this week, ruling Tuesday that she erred in keeping a repeal of the Massachusetts casino law off the November ballot.
Coakley got a lashing. Her gubernatorial foes piled on. Columnists were unkind.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned a Massachusetts law creating buffer zones around the state’s abortion clinics. But the reaction, this time, was far more muted.
“This isn’t a loss for Martha Coakley; it’s a loss for women,” said opponent Donald Berwick.
What might have been a damaging narrative — losing two big decisions in a week — had fizzled. Coakley managed to turn a very bad week into something much more promising.
Coakley, at a press conference in her office, cast herself as the champion of a just cause. “We do this everyday,” she said. “We fight our battles — we win some, we don’t win them all — we are going to keep fighting.”
She vowed to work with the governor and the Legislature to come up with new protections for clinic-goers that meet legal muster. In a note to supporters, she said she would continue the fight as governor.
“Today’s decision just reminds us that our work is far from done, and it is imperative we elect someone with a track record of standing up for women’s rights and working to make our state a more safe and equal place for all,” she wrote.
Peter Ubertaccio, a political scientist at Stonehill College, said support for reproductive rights in Massachusetts blunted any political fallout from the court’s decision.
None of Coakley’s gubernatorial opponents, especially Democrats Steve Grossman and Berwick, wanted to get in a fight with her over abortion.
“I suspect at the end of
the day, it’s a net positive,” Ubertaccio said of the week’s events, arguing that Democratic voters may have a more “visceral reaction” to the abortion fight than the casino imbroglio.
Indeed, just days after the gambling decision cast the political perils of Coakley’s day job in high relief, the Supreme Court tussle served as a reminder of its advantages.
That moment may be short-lived. The buffer zone story will probably fade in time, while the casino debate seems likely to consume much of the state’s political bandwidth in coming months.
But on Thursday, it was the buffer zone battle that dominated. And it was hard to find anyone saying that Coakley botched the case.
Martha Walz, who was an architect of the buffer zone law as a state legislator and now serves as president and chief executive of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, strongly defended Coakley’s handling of the case in an early afternoon conference call with reporters.
“I have no quarrel or concern with how the attorney general and her team have handled this case,” she said. “Martha Coakley has been a tremendous champion for women’s access to health care. She’s been a tremendous champion for the buffer zone law.”
Walz also heads the organization’s political arm, which endorsed Coakley for governor last month. And she stood alongside the attorney general at her press conference later in the day.
Legal analysts said that despite the Supreme Court’s unanimous rebuke, there was little to fault in Coakley’s handling of the case. The 9-to-0 decision, they said, only underscored the long odds she faced.
“It was a bad law,” said Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet. “It would be astonishing if any lawyer won this case.”
Tushnet credited the Massachusetts attorney general’s office with winning a small tactical victory, even in defeat. A majority of the justices, he noted, found that the law did not discriminate against antiabortion protesters for the content of their speech. Instead, the justices found, it impinged on the rights of everyone outside the clinics, whatever their views.
Tushnet said the finding, that the buffer zone law was “content-neutral,” could provide an opening for new, more limited measures designed to protect clinic-goers and employees.
Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo both said Thursday that they would look at legislative remedies, though it was unclear what they might do. Small floating buffer zones, surrounding patients, are a possibility. The Legislature could also beef up laws against harassment and obstruction.
Nancy Gertner, a former US District Court judge and now a law professor at Harvard University, said she is not surprised that the two unanimous decisions did not produce a simple “bad week for Coakley” narrative.
“You can’t begrudge the attorney general of the state defending a statute that supports the right to choose,” she said.
The prochoice position is not only popular in Massachusetts, she said, it’s been enshrined in the law for years. The casino debate, she said, is much newer and much more complicated.
“It’s just not the same,” she said. “And you shouldn’t put two defeats in the same box.”