The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that Clean Elections candidates are entitled to get public funding from the executive branch of government, bypassing a balky Legislature and handing advocates of the law a hard-won victory.

The high court ruled that gubernatorial candidate Warren Tolman, who had sued for funding, is entitled to receive public funds under the Clean Elections law, and clarified that he should apply to a single justice for damages from the executive branch.

Future Clean Elections candidates can apply individually to a single justice for distribution of their funds, the court ruled 5-2 on Monday.

"Tolman is owed $811,050, and is entitled to a judgment in his favor in that amount," the court wrote.

Clean Elections advocates called the decision a "total victory" because it ensures that candidates for office in 2002 will receive taxpayer funding if they adhere to spending and contribution limits.

"We think it's incredible," said David Donnelly, director of Mass. Voters for Clean Elections, which engineered the successful 1998 referendum to create the system of publicly funded campaigns.

The Legislature has been unable to muster the votes to fund or repeal the law. Opponents have said the money would be better spent for human services, which are being cut because tax revenues have fallen.

The court ruled 5-2 in January that as long as the law remains on the books, the Legislature has a constitutional duty to pay for it. Monday's order, though, takes the Legislature out of the picture by making it clear that a judge can issue an order for a monetary judgment, said John Bonifaz, lead attorney for Clean Elections plaintiffs.

"The executive branch must satisfy that monetary judgment just as it must any monetary judgment," Bonifaz said.

He said the money could come from an account for judgments and settlements, which has about $1.5 million in it.

"Once that's exhausted, they may go to the Massachusetts Clean Elections fund or the Rainy Day fund," Bonifaz said. The Rainy Day fund has $1.4 billion in it.

House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a vocal opponent of the law, would not comment on the court's order.

After the high court's decision in January, the Legislature voted to severely restrict the Clean Elections Law to the two candidates who had already qualified for public funding, Tolman and legislative candidate James Eldridge. The lawmakers' action was probably moot as acting Gov. Jane Swift indicated she'd veto it.

Tolman, a former state senator, is one of five Democrats running for governor.

Tolman said he'll talk to his lawyers before seeking a judgment.

"It's obviously an infusion of cash. We've been waiting for it for a long time," he said. "Hopefully our luck is changing."

Eldridge was not a plaintiff in the case.

The high court ruled that the single justice "shall retain jurisdiction to grant relief to any other candidate plaintiff who is or may become entitled to relief under the Clean Elections statute."

"It is a complete victory for all the plaintiffs," said Evan Slavitt, a plaintiff who has declared his intention to run for attorney general as a Clean Elections candidate.

Two justices, Judith Cowin and Francis Spina, dissented from the ruling.

"We cannot order the Legislature to appropriate funds or deem the funds appropriated as a matter of law, and members of the executive branch are powerless to authorize payments to certified clean elections candidates in the absence of a legislative appropriation," Cowin wrote.