Nation/World

Term Limits Law Ruled Unconstitutional By Court Backers See Silver Lining In Defeat

Most of the provisions of Proposition 4, approved by voters last year and designed to encourage lawmakers to enact term limits on members of Congress, are unconstitutional, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

All five justices said the initiative, pushed by Citizens for Federal Term Limits, was unconstitutional, although Justice Cathy Silak used different grounds for reaching that conclusion.

Donna Weaver of Hayden Lake, leader and major financial backer of Citizens for Federal Term Limits, said it’s a “very major silver lining.” The state Supreme Court ruled, in part, that voters can instruct Congress and the Legislature to amend the U.S. Constitution.

That differs from every other state Supreme Court ruling around the country on similar term limits initiatives and thereby opens the door for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Weaver said.

She also believes the language of the ruling opens the door for the group’s newest initiative. The new initiative allows politicians to voluntarily instruct the secretary of state to put language on the ballot that says they promise to run for only three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives or two terms in the U.S. Senate.

That step, however, also would mean the candidate is telling the secretary of state to put “promise broken” on the ballot by that person’s name if they exceed the self-imposed term limit.

“That way if it’s Larry Craig and you want to elect them anyway, that’s fine,” Weaver said.

Still, Thursday’s ruling prevents the secretary of state from carrying out directions of the initiative Weaver’s group pushed in 1996. It was the only one of four initiative put before voters last November to be approved.

It was a follow-up to the term limits initiative approved by Idaho voters in 1994. It imposed term limits on state, local and congressional officials, but the courts have ruled that members of Congress are not subject to state-imposed term limits.

The 1996 initiative was designed to force legislators, members of Congress and candidates to either sign a pledge to support congressional term limits or face a label next to their name on the election ballot saying they refused or “disregarded voters’ instructions” on term limits.

It also would require legislators to call for a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to impose congressional term limits.

In a decision written by Justice Byron Johnson, the Supreme Court said the ballot label provision was unconstitutional because in essence it would penalize candidates or incumbents for their failure to support term limits.

The Idaho Constitution contains a provision granting absolute immunity for speech in the Legislature.

“We conclude that the speech and debate clause of the Idaho Constitution does not allow the state to question speech and debate by Idaho legislators concerning the calling of a convention for proposing amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” the court said.

The “pledge” requirement of the initiative is unconstitutional because it violates a nonincumbent candidate’s right to free speech by forcing the candidate to take a stand on a political issue.

Silak argued that the initiative would infringe on people’s rights to vote.

And she said the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a political party has no right to use the ballot to send a particular message.

The ruling left intact one section of the initiative, allowing voters to instruct legislators to call for a convention to propose a constitutional amendment for congressional term limits.

Since that is nonbinding and in the nature of an advisory action, it is not unconstitutional, the court said. Any such proposal still would have to go through the process for ratification, including approval by a majority of the states.

Jack Van Valkenberg, Idaho director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said people did not know what they were voting for when they approved the initiative last November.

“The initiative was not what most voters believed,” he said. “They believed it was on whether term limits were good or bad things.”

Instead, Van Valkenberg said, “It was devised as a way of punishing legislators who exercised their responsibility to freely deliberate and debate on an important political issue.”

, DataTimes MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From staff and wire reports Staff writer Ken Olsen contributed to this report.

Cut in the Spokane edition.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From staff and wire reports Staff writer Ken Olsen contributed to this report.



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