The U.S. Supreme Court ended a challenge to California’s term limit law for state legislators on Monday when it refused to consider a lawsuit filed by opponents.
“This victory is huge,” said California Secretary of State Bill Jones, lead defendant in the lawsuit filed by several Democratic and Republican legislators and citizens.
“It sends a message to voters that they do have the right to reform their government through the initiative process and the laws they pass will take effect.’
The high court’s decision probably has little effect on term limit movements in Washington state or Idaho, where voter have passed restrictions - but not lifetime bans.
Washington’s law was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year by the state Supreme Court. The change requires a constitutional amendment, that court said, not simply an initiative like the one which passed in 1994.
Idaho’s law allows an elected official to return to most positions after a set number of years. Idaho voters will be asked this fall to advise the Legislature whether they want to keep the law established by a 1994 initiative.
Gov. Pete Wilson said the court’s action “rejects the strained and specious arguments of the opponents of term limits and validates the will of the people to open up the political process to new faces, fresh ideas and renewed competition.”
Wilson, now in his second term, cannot seek re-election because of the law’s two-term limit on statewide elected officials. That provision was not challenged by the lawsuit.
Term limit opponents acknowledged they had no legal recourse remaining, but they voiced hopes that voters will someday revise or undo 1990’s Proposition 140, which barred Assembly members from serving more than three two-year terms or state senators from serving more than two four-year terms.
“There’s no place to go from here,” said Joseph Remcho, the attorney hired by several Democratic and Republican legislators and citizens.
Many Californians “have recognized that Proposition 140 was too extreme and I thought as a constitutional matter, it was too extreme,” Remcho added.
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who holds the record as the longest-serving speaker of the Assembly, said, “There’s no lifetime ban for serving on the Supreme Court after six years.”
Among the law’s challengers were former Assemblyman Tom Bates, D-Oakland, former Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante, D-Fresno, Assemblyman Don Perata, D-Alameda, and state Sens. Ken Maddy, R-Fresno, Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Charles Calderon, D-Whittier.
Term limits began affecting the Legislature in recent years as dozens of lawmakers retired, or opted to seek congressional seats or statewide offices. In some cases, Assembly members ran for state Senate seats or Senate members ran for the Assembly.
The initiative’s opponents won the preliminary legal skirmishes.
A federal district court judge last year ruled that the initiative was unconstitutional, citing mainly the initiative’s lifetime ban on persons who have reached their term limits. That provision essentially prohibits a term-limited politician from sitting out a few years and then running for his or her old seat.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling, but for different reasons, saying voters were unaware of the lifetime ban. But a larger panel of the 9th Circuit last December overturned that decision and found the law constitutional.
The legislators appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the statute violated the U.S. Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments by, among other things, barring voters from choosing experienced candidates.
But the court - which in 1995 ruled that states could not adopt term limits for members of Congress - opted Monday against accepting the challenge to term limits for state legislators. The decision, as is usual for the court, was accompanied by no elaboration.
The justices’ decision does not set a national precedent but is likely to render problematic lawsuits opposing similar limits in other states.
“The action by the high court also pours ice-cold water on lawsuits brought against term limits in Arkansas, Florida, Michigan and Oregon,” said Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, a Washington-based group that advocates state and congressional term restrictions. “Term limits on state legislators are here to stay.”
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