Term Limits Are Constitutional

On November 3, 1992, the voters of Michigan voted by a wide margin in favor of a constitutional amendment enacting term limits for members of the state legislature and for the U. S. Congress. The U. S. Supreme Court struck down the limits Michigan and some twenty other states placed on federal officials, but did not disturb those on state officials. A new challenge to voter-approved limits on Michigan legislators (three two-year terms for the House and two four-year terms in the Senate) may yet derail the 1992 referendum, but only if the courts ignore the will of the people and recraft the constitution to provide special protection for long term incumbents.

Parallel lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts challenging Michigan’s constitutional amendment limiting legislative terms. The supporters of the challenge claim that term limits violate the voters’ right to vote for "experienced legislators." Until recently, similar objections around the country have failed to persuade one court after another.

The one exception, and the one which the Michigan challenges imitate, was brought by California legislators in the case of Bates v. Jones. In that case, a federal district court judge, Claudia Wilken, ignored a California Supreme Court decision upholding term limits and, instead, determined that California’s term limits law was unconstitutional because it prevented voters from voting for "experienced" politicians.

Judge Wilken’s view in the Bates case was extraordinary and without foundation. States have regulated the conditions of election for as long as there have been elections. Candidates for state office must be of a certain age. They must reside in the state and be citizens of the United States. Those restrictions, it could be argued, discriminate against the young, the nonresident, and the noncitizen. Judges in Michigan may not run for re-election after they reach the age of 70, which prevents voters from voting for some of the most experienced judges in the state.

Courts have consistently upheld term limits for state and local offices. In Miyazawa v. Cincinnati, the Sixth Circuit (which includes Michigan) upheld term limits on Cincinnati city council members. In Dutmer v. City of San Antonio, a federal court upheld lifetime term limits on city council members. Other cases around the nation have kept state and local term limits intact. The decision in the Bates case stands alone in a growing, unbroken affirmation of term limits. The challenge to Michigan’s limits, in the end, is likely to waste money and accomplish nothing.

The 1998 legislative elections in Michigan will be the first since the 1992 referendum in which legislators cannot run for the same office again. More than half the members of the state House of Representatives will be affected. With such a huge turnover, and with the term limits amendment under fire, Michiganians may need a reminder about why they voted for limits in the first place.

It was Benjamin Franklin who summed up the best case for term limits more than two centuries ago: "In free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors. . . . For the former to return among the latter does not degrade, but promote them." In other words, when politicians know they must return to ordinary society and live under the laws passed while they were in office, they will think more carefully about the long-term effects of the programs they supported. Since many House members are avoiding the private sector and running for higher office, this intended effect of term limits may be delayed, but it won’t be prevented entirely.

Term limits opponents argue that people should be free to elect whomever they want to office. Voters sensed in 1992, however, that there’s nothing democratic about a system that allows incumbents to amass so much power by exploiting their office that challengers only rarely win. This "stacking of the deck" in favor of incumbency—from mailing privileges to unholy alliances with longstanding special interest lobbies—will surely be diminished if Michigan’s law stays in effect.

Without long-term legislators, goes another argument, no one will be able to control the bureaucracy. That sounds more like an argument for less bureaucracy and for legislators to muster the courage to bestow limited powers and clear direction upon the people they employ. Somehow, that seems to get done in the 41 other states where legislators serve only part-time (as opposed to Michigan’s full-time legislature), and where citizens are, in most cases, just as well governed as Michigan’s.

Term limits are not a cure-all for what ails our system of government. But large numbers of honest, civic-minded citizens are looking at them as a positive structural reform that deserves a chance. The will of the Michigan citizenry as expressed in the state constitution should not be flouted for the sake of allowing "experienced politicians" to forever govern.