May 23, 1995 in Nation/World

High Court Strikes Down Term Limits Constitutional Amendment The Only Way, Say Justices

From Wire Reports

The Supreme Court dealt a blow to the term-limits movement Monday, ruling that states may not by law restrict how long members of Congress serve on Capitol Hill.

The 5-4 ruling strikes down popular measures in 23 states, including Idaho and Washington, where a federal district court ruled the statute unconstitutional last February. The ruling does not affect term limits on state officeholders.

Looking back more than 200 years, the justices concluded that the authors of the Constitution wanted the people to be free to pick their lawmakers through frequent elections, rather than limit who can serve through rules and restrictions.

“A state-imposed restriction is contrary to the fundamental principle of our representative democracy, embodied in the Constitution, that the people should choose whom they please to govern them,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the court.

During the early 1780s, just as during the early 1990s, it was the popular practice to limit service in the Legislature.

Many states had a “rotation” requirement that forced members to step aside after several terms.

But the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 rejected a rotation requirement for the new federal Constitution. Better to have veteran lawmakers who “will be thoroughly masters of the public business” than to require a steady procession of fresh faces, said James Madison.

As written, the Constitution sets only a few minimum qualifications for national legislators. For example, members of the House must be at least 25 years of age and have been a citizen for at least seven years. A Senator must be 30 and a citizen for nine years.

The Constitution does not “allow individual states to craft their own qualifica tions for Congress,” Stevens concluded.

The only option left for term limits advocates is to amend the Constitution. But in March, House Republicans leaders failed to gain the needed two-thirds vote to approve a constitutional amendment that would set term limits.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., has promised to seek a Senate vote during the summer on a term limits proposal.

Term limits have been a powerful political reform movement. When put to vote, the electorate in state after state has approved measures to limit House members to three terms, or six years, while restricting senators to two terms, or 12 years.

Critics said these laws would wrongly deprive voters of the opportunity to re-elect distinguished and experienced lawmakers. However, proponents contended that veteran lawmakers used the power and perks of their office, especially their ability to raise campaign funds, to virtually guarantee their re-election.

But the same voters’ anger that propelled the term-limits movement also succeeded last November in undercutting one of its key premises. Many Democratic barons on Capitol Hill - all with fat campaign war- chests - were unceremoniously dumped by the voters. House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks, D-Texas and former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., were among those sent into retirement.

The leaders of the term-limits movement have not eased off, and they reacted angrily to Monday’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court today granted a temporary reprieve to the era of career politicians,” said Scott Rasmussen, chairman of the Term Limits Leadership Council. “By overturning the votes of 25 million Americans, five justices have ensured that public distrust of government, and public support for term limits, will continue to grow.”

But the League of Women Voters praised the decision as a victory for the voters.

“We believe in the wisdom of the voters. But the voters need more choices at the ballot box, not fewer. Restricting whom we can vote for is not the answer,” said Betty Cain, the league’s president.

Stevens was joined by three other liberal leaning justices, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Kennedy signed Stevens’ broadly written opinion and wrote a separate statement emphasizing how the Arkansas term limits statute challenged the “distinctive character” of a national government.

“There can be no doubt, if we are to respect the republican origins of the nation and preserve its federal character, that there exists a federal right of citizenship, a relationship between the people of the nation and their national government, with which the states may not interfere.”

In the dissent were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas, to whom the chief assigned the dissenting opinion.

“It is ironic that the court bases today’s decision on the right of the people to ‘choose whom they please to govern them,’ ” Thomas wrote, because it then invalidates “a provision that won nearly 60 percent of the votes cast in a direct election and that carried every congressional district in the state.” The Arkansas provision was adopted in 1992 as an amendment to the state Constitution.

In addition to Washington state, Idaho and Arkansas, the states that have passed laws limiting congressional terms are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

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