A political thunderstorm struck Boston Tuesday, and its repercussions are likely to last for months. A federal district court judge has ruled that the fall elections for City Council and School Committee cannot be held as planned.
The controversy surrounds the way the city's new voting districts were drawn. No one is sure what the consequences of this decision will be - if the city will appeal the decision, work toward a compromise, or postpone the elections (including the hotly contested mayoral race) - until winter. But there's one thing everyone agrees on: The timing is terrible.
The Boston case is another example of the courts taking a greater role in the election process across the country. Judges are indicating they will guard the constitutionality of that process - regardless of election timetables or other consequences. Recent cases in New Jersey and Rhode Island have spotlighted this trend at the federal and state levels.
In 1982 the Boston City Council was given the job of dividing the city into nine districts of roughly equal population. Though population figures from the 1980 federal census were available, the council used the 1975 state census. The reason, according to City Council president Joseph M. Tierney, was that the federal census figures are being challenged in court.
According to the 1975 figures, the districts' populations vary by only 8 percent - a margin acceptable to the US Supreme Court. Using 1980 figures, though, the population of the smallest district is almost 24 percent smaller than the largest district.
US District Judge Andrew A. Caffrey ruled that because they vary so widely, the district lines drawn by the City Council are unconstitutional, violating the intention of the US Constitution to provide for ''one man, one vote.''
Because of this discrepancy, a suit was brought against the city by several Latino and black groups. Alex Rodriguez of the Latino PAC, one of the groups, says that minority interests were squeezed out by the council's plan.
Although surprised by the judge's decision, the City Council denies that race was a factor in drawing up the districts. Councilor Christopher Iannella says that ''if there was a mistake, it was an honest one. There was no attempt to juggle the boundaries for the benefit of one group or another.''
But what annoys Mr. Iannella is the fact that although the suit was entered last September, Judge Caffrey didn't rule until July 26. The decision comes but nine weeks before the primary election, and several weeks after the deadline for candidates to place their names on the ballot.
The candidates have been thrown into confusion. They've been out campaigning and raising money as representatives of their districts. Many of them now don't know what new district they may represent.
Among the options for the city at this point:
* It can appeal. According to Councilor Terrence P. McDermott, such a move is unlikely. The first available date for a hearing is Sept. 7, and the feeling is that an appeal would fail.
* The City Council and the plaintiffs can work toward a compromise, perhaps redrawing the map only slightly this year so that elections can proceed. More changes would follow later.
* The council could postpone the elections and draw new district lines according to the 1980 census. This course is the most likely. The council has already formed a new committee on electoral districts.