Let’s call Tuesday’s Supreme Judicial Court decision exactly what it is: A big embarrassment for Attorney General Martha Coakley — and a revealing political X-ray of other candidates for high office.
A unanimous court rejected Coakley’s argument that the initiative petition to repeal casino gambling shouldn’t be on the ballot because its passage would deprive casino companies of contractual rights that they had somehow gained by paying their application fees to be considered for a gambling license.
The SJC decision is hardly a surprise. Even a non-lawyer reading the AG’s justification for not certifying the question for the November ballot had to be struck by how flimsy it was.
As Coakley’s office acknowledged when the case was argued, that curiously cantilevered line of reasoning was first put forward by the casino companies themselves. In essence, then, Coakley adopted an argument adduced by the gaming companies that put their supposed contractual rights over the voters’ ability to use the constitutionally established ballot-question process.
After the SJC ruling, the AG-who-would-be-governor tried to downplay her stance, saying that “my office had conducted a legal review of this ballot question, but knew it would ultimately be decided by the Court.”
But what, exactly, does that mean? That it doesn’t matter that she got this crashingly wrong? Given the importance of the initiative petition process and the weakness of the anti-certification arguments, an AG aggressively focused on protecting the interests of voters should have approved this question.
If Coakley’s performance was disappointing, so too was Steve Grossman’s, though for different reasons. Grossman repeatedly dodged and ducked when asked whether the repeal question should be on the ballot, saying he would leave that up to the SJC. That was a political wimp-out. Yes, Grossman himself supports casino gambling. Still, one can be pro-casino and still conclude that the repeal question belonged on the ballot — unless, that is, you’re trying not to offend either side.
Among the three Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls who survived the party’s recent convention, only Don Berwick got this right. An avowed opponent of casino gambling, Berwick said he wanted to see the repeal question on the ballot. His forthright stand buttresses his claim to be the boldest progressive in the race.
Other candidates earning kudos for candor are Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Fisher and independent Jeffrey McCormick, both of whom recently told the Globe’s Michael Levenson that they thought the question should be on the ballot. Both said they would vote to repeal casino gambling if it did. Republican gubernatorial hopeful Charles D. Baker Jr. also said the question belonged on the ballot, though it wasn’t until after Tuesday’s decision that Baker said he would vote to keep the law.
This issue has also highlighted important differences in the Democratic primary for attorney general. Back in April, first-time candidate Maura Healey broke with Coakley, her former boss, and declared that the repeal question should be on the ballot. A casino opponent, she favors repealing the law.
In contrast, Warren Tolman, who supports casino gambling, tried to finesse the certification issue, saying that since the next AG wouldn’t have any role in deciding whether the repeal question made the ballot, he wasn’t going to take a stand.
Now, given that 1) AGs regularly have to decide these issues and 2) Tolman wants to be the next AG, that sidestep was transparently silly. Perhaps realizing as much, Tolman’s camp, when pressed last month by Levenson, finally said he “hopes” the question would get on the ballot.
But what a difference an SJC ruling makes! On Tuesday, Tolman, in a statement, said he welcomed and supported the high court’s ruling. “I’m glad to see people getting the opportunity to vote,” he added.
Ah, retrospective boldness. There’s nothing quite as refreshing — except perhaps a candidate willing to take a forthright stand before a thorny issue is actually settled.
So voters will now have a chance to decide for themselves whether they want to move forward with casino gambling. For that, they can thank the SJC, not the AG.
They’ll also have a chance to consider the stands of the various hopefuls — and the forthrightness they showed on this important issue.
Or didn’t show, as the case may be.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.