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Supermarket politics

BOSTON — Every political season in Massachusetts, voters can count on getting a little politics with their bread and milk.

For decades, supermarkets have been a favorite place for candidates to shake hands, collect signatures and offer a quick rundown of their views on the issues of the day. But not all supermarket chains are in favor of the tradition.

The state’s highest court is being asked to decide whether a supermarket’s decision to turn away a political candidate violated his constitutional rights. The Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear arguments Feb. 3.

Steven Glovsky is challenging a decision by Roche Bros. Supermarkets to reject his request to solicit signatures outside its store in Westwood while he was running for a seat on the Governor’s Council in 2012.

“I first ran for office 20 years ago, and we’ve always been out in front of the supermarkets,” Glovsky said. “I’ve tried malls, train stations and other places, but basically the only place that makes any practical sense is the supermarket. People who do grocery shopping are going to be people who are going to vote.”

Glovsky sued Roche Bros. Supermarkets Inc., arguing that the decision to bar him from collecting signatures outside its store violated his rights under a section of the state constitution that guarantees the freedom and equality of elections. He also alleges that the store’s interference with his constitutional rights violated the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act because he felt an inherent threat of arrest for trespassing.

Glovsky cites a 1983 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court that found that a political candidate had the right to solicit nomination signatures in the common areas of the Northshore Mall. Glovsky says that right extends to supermarkets, which he argues are public gathering places that have taken the place of traditional downtowns.

“Without the supermarket, there is no routine place to collect signatures in a manner that is reasonably convenient for both the customer — the voter — and the candidate or political activist,” he said.

Roche Bros., a Wellesley-based chain that has 18 supermarkets across Massachusetts, argues that state law does not grant a general right to collect signatures on private property. The chain’s lawyers argue that cases over the last three decades have found that supermarkets are not public forums for the purpose of collecting signatures.

“The overwhelming consensus among courts that have considered this issue is that though individuals may have a constitutional right to solicit or engage in political activity at a large mall, they do not have the same right at a private supermarket over the store owner’s objections,” attorneys representing the chain argue in a legal brief.

They also say that even if the court were to find that Glovsky has a right to solicit signatures in front of Roche Bros., he has not shown that the supermarket interfered with that right through threats, intimidation or coercion, a requirement under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.

A Superior Court judge dismissed Glovsky’s lawsuit, but he appealed. The SJC agreed to hear his appeal and asked for outside parties to submit legal briefs on whether candidates for public office have a state constitutional right to use supermarket property to solicit signatures for nomination papers.

The case is being closely watched by political and business groups.

“It’s important for people to be able to talk, to get out there and converse about their views, to go out there and collect signatures for their nomination papers or ballot questions,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a citizens’ lobbying group that didn’t submit a legal brief.

“It’s disappointing when I see businesses try to thwart those basic democratic opportunities,” she said.

But seven business, real estate and supermarket industry groups support Roche Bros.’ position. They argue that the SJR’s 1983 ruling applied only to large shopping malls where the public is encouraged to shop, linger and gather in large numbers.

“There’s a huge difference in the scope and magnitude of the property and the way the property is configured,” said John Pagliaro, a staff attorney for the New England Legal Foundation, one of the groups siding with Roche Bros. and submitting a brief.

Glovsky said he is concerned that a court decision in favor of Roche Bros. could hurt local candidates who have come to rely on supermarkets as places to meet voters and gather signatures.

“If the supermarkets are told they don’t have to do it, I think they’ll all stop doing it,” he said.

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