Twin court defeats pose challenge as Coakley ramps up campaign for Massachusetts governor


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BOSTON — Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley had a tough week.

On Tuesday, the state's highest court said Coakley was wrong to try to block a casino repeal ballot question, unanimously rejecting her argument that the question amounted to an unconstitutional taking of property.

Two days later, the U.S. Supreme Court handed Coakley another defeat, unanimously ruling the state's 2007 abortion buffer zone law violated the U.S. Constitution.

The twin defeats shine a light on the peculiar challenges attorneys general in Massachusetts face when they decide, as Coakley has, to run for governor.

While Coakley seemed resigned to the court's rejection of her ballot question ruling, she sounded more defiant on the buffer zone decision, vowing to work with lawmakers to protect patients entering clinics from harassment.

"We do this every day. We fight our battles. We win some. We don't win them all. On this one, we're going to keep fighting. This is our job. This is what I do," Coakley said, calling the court "hostile" to the idea of buffer zones.

Massachusetts politicos have a description of the dilemma facing Coakley: It's known simply as the curse of the attorney general's office.

Since 1958, five former Massachusetts attorneys general have sought the governor's office. All five — George Fingold, Edward J. McCormack Jr., Francis X. Bellotti, Scott Harshbarger and Tom Reilly — failed, either by losing their party's primary, losing the general election, or in the case of Fingold, dying before Election Day.

Observers point to a number of reasons for the hurdle — some arguing the job of attorney general inevitably leads to clashes with the same political insiders needed to win elections.

In 1998, frosty relationships between Harshbarger and fellow Democratic insiders such as then-House Speaker Thomas Finneran helped undermine his campaign.

Another reason is that attorneys general sometimes have to defend state agencies, whether they personally agree with their decisions.

In February, Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker criticized Coakley for fighting a 2010 lawsuit that accused the state Department of Children and Families of violating the constitutional rights of children by placing them in unstable or dangerous situations.

Baker said Coakley should have reached a settlement that addressed the problems instead.

Coakley defended her handling of the case.

"We represented the agency, which is our job," said Coakley, who as a candidate has called for changes at the family welfare agency.

Coakley's political foes also had different reactions to the two recent court decisions — one of which targeted a decision Coakley herself made while the other tossed out a state law Coakley was defending.

Baker faulted Coakley for "a poorly reasoned position" on the casino question, but he criticized the court on the buffer zone ruling.

Coakley's two Democratic challengers — state Treasurer Steve Grossman and former Medicare administrator Don Berwick — also focused their criticism on the Supreme Court in the buffer zone ruling.

Massachusetts Republican Party Chairman Kirsten Hughes was more critical, pointing to Coakley's "back-to-back defeats."

On Friday, Coakley's campaign cited the court's ruling in a fundraising email pitch.

"If this week's Supreme Court decision showed us anything, it's that as Martha works even harder to fight for us, we need to redouble our efforts to make her the first elected female governor of the commonwealth," the email said.

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