October 16, 1997 in City

Term Limits Battle Goes To Supreme Court Opponents Question Legality; Proponents Say States Can Add To Qualifications

David Ammons Associated Press
 

The state Supreme Court was asked Wednesday to throw out Washington’s term limits for the Legislature, governor and lieutenant governor before they ever go into effect.

Challengers told eight justices that an initiative approved by voters in 1992 is an illegal way to enact term limits.

Rather than simply writing a statute or passing an initiative, it would take a constitutional amendment to pass term limits, attorney Nancy Day said. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that congressional limits can’t be passed without a change in the federal constitution, she noted.

But defenders of the new law said it’s legal for either the Legislature or the voters to add reasonable additions to the minimum list of qualifications provided for in the state Constitution. One lawyer said the challengers are second-guessing the intelligence of the voters.

If the court doesn’t overturn the law, more than 30 state House members, including the speaker and most of the committee leaders, will be unable to run again next year. Together, they have 262 years of experience in Olympia.

State Senate term limits would trigger two years later.

The limits also would allow Gov. Gary Locke and Lt. Gov. Brad Owen to run only one more time.

The initiative, passed by 52 percent of the voters, imposes three two-year terms for the state House and two four-year terms for the Senate, governor and lieutenant governor.

Washington’s congressional term limits were thrown out by federal courts previously.

The high court gave no indication how it will rule - or when.

But both sides say they’re sure the justices will act as quickly as they can, knowing that both incumbents and challengers need to know the lay of the land for the legislative campaigns that already are getting under way in many areas.

The televised hearing was lively.

Justices had read thick briefing books submitted by the two sides and were ready. Rather than allow uninterrupted presentations, the judges peppered the lawyers with pointed questions and guided the discussion to points of law.

Although the written briefs had discussed a variety of questions about the term-limits law, the lawyers and justices zeroed in on one central question: Can the Legislature - and, by the initiative process, the people - add qualifications for public office, such as term limits?

Day said the framers of the Constitution expressly considered term limits and rejected them for all but the state treasurer - a one-term limit later lifted by constitutional amendment.

The framers issued a short, exclusive set of qualifications for office candidates must be citizens, of voting age and a resident of the state or district and left no wiggle room for lawmakers or voters to add more restrictions, she said.

“Aren’t you asking us to disregard the vote of the public?” asked Justice Richard Guy.

The procedure wasn’t lawful and requires a constitutional amendment, Day replied.

Justice Gerry Alexander asked why voters or lawmakers shouldn’t be able to make reasonable adjustments, such as barring someone from running for office if they’re committed to a mental hospital.

Day gave much the same reply - that there is a right way and a wrong way to change such a fundamental part of the Constitution. The document cannot be amended by initiative or by simple statute.

A constitutional amendment requires two-thirds votes in both houses and approval by the people.

Defending the initiative, Jim Pharris, senior assistant attorney general, said “the legislative power is unrestrained” unless the Constitution forbids it.

Lawmakers and citizens are well within their rights when they consider term limits or other rational proposals, he said.

Asked by Guy if it would be legal to require that all legislators be lawyers or to be older than 45, Pharris said any changes would have to be non-discriminatory and based on a good reason.

He said he’d see nothing wrong with requiring candidates for treasurer to have backgrounds in finance, candidates for auditor to be certified in accounting, or candidates for state school superintendent to be educators.

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TERM LIMITS

The new law imposes three two-year terms for the state House and two four-year terms for the Senate, governor and lieutenant governor.

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