In a closely-watched case affecting hundreds of stores and other commercial establishments across Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today ruled that Article 9 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights – which protects the right of equal access to ballots – trumps the right of private property owners to bar individuals from soliciting signatures in support of a candidate’s nomination to public office.  Here is a full copy of the court’s decision in Glovsky v. Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Inc.  In its 1983 decision in  Batchelder v. Allied Stores Int’l, Inc., the SJC reached a similar conclusion with regard to a large, enclosed shopping mall, reasoning that malls had become the functional equivalent of municipal “downtowns.”  Glovsky extends this principle to a single, stand-alone supermarket, though the court’s reasoning seems equally applicable to other commercial establishments that offer “assorted products” and “draw large numbers of people on a daily basis.”  While ruling in the plaintiff’s favor on the access issue, the court rejected his claim that the store manager’s statement that the store “had adopted a policy against signature solicitation” constituted “threats, intimidation or coercion” within the meaning of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act. 

In a strongly-worded dissent, Justice Robert Cordy asserts that the majority “significantly expands the scope of the right [under Article 9] at the expense of the rights of countless commercial property owners across the Commonwealth.”  He notes that this outcome departs from “the overwhelming national consensus” in similar cases, “completely undoes the intended balance between the rights of property owners and the rights of those whom they invite to use their property,” and “creates serious consequences for property owners who miscalculate their obligations despite their best intentions.”  

Particularly in this election season, owners of Massachusetts retail establishments of all kinds would be wise to study Glovsky, consult with their real estate counsel, and re-evaluate their policies on signature collection.