The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether states can impose term limits on members of Congress by restricting the number of times their names can appear on the ballot for re-election.
The court said it will consider reinstating provisions of a state constitutional amendment in Arkansas that was struck down by courts in that state.The court will hear arguments in the case during its 1994-95 term, which begins in October. A decision is expected sometime in 1995.
The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in March that states cannot impose qualifications on congressional candidates in addition to those set by the Constitution - minimum age, U.S. citizenship and state residency.
At the same time, the justices refused to reinstate a similar term-limits amendment in Washington state. A federal judge in Seattle last February ruled that the Washington amendment violated voters' constitutional right to choose their representatives.
A federal appeals court still has the Washington state ruling under study.
Term-limit amendments have been enacted in 15 states by voters disenchanted with Congress and with longtime incumbents perceived as having lost touch with the people they represent.
Colorado was the first state, in 1990, to pass such an initiative. States that followed suit in 1992 were Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.
The 1994 Utah Legislature passed a term-limits law - not a state constitutional amendment - that limits the terms of state officials to 12 years and limits the terms of U.S. congressmen from Utah also to 12 years. However, there's a catch in the congressional term limits. The Utah congressional term limits doesn't take effect unless 24 other states also have term limits for their members of Congress - so if 24 states don't adopt such limits, Utah wouldn't limit its congressional members' terms. In any case, the Utah law doesn't apply to incumbents, so wouldn't effect any incumbent, state or federal, until 2006.
Merrill Cook and his Independent Party of Utah are also trying to get a term limits law on the books through a citizen initiative petition. If successful, that would also be a term-limit law - not a constitutional amendment. The Utah Constitution can't be changed via a citizen intitiative. Cook's petition would limit state and county elected officers to eight years; limit U.S. House members from Utah to eight years and limit U.S. senators from Utah to 12 years. It would also require a run-off election if no candidate got 50 percent or more of the vote in a general election.
A Deseret News/KSL poll published Sunday shows overwhelming support for term limits in Utah. Pollster Dan Jones & Associates found that 76 percent of Utahns support Cook's initiative, 17 percent oppose and 6 percent didn't know.
The term-limits movement "is the most significant grassroots political phenomenon of recent years," said lawyers for U.S. Term Limits Inc., which filed one of the Arkansas appeals.
The Arkansas amendment permanently barred from the Senate election ballot anyone who had served two six-year terms. People who served three two-year terms in the House were barred from the ballot for the House of Representatives. However, anyone can run as a write-in candidate.
Arkansas' highest court invalidated those provisions, citing a 1969 Supreme Court decision that said the House, short of impeachment and conviction, cannot exclude any member who meets the constitutional qualifications.
The Arkansas Supreme Court said that rule "makes eminently good sense," adding that there should be a uniform standard for representation in Congress.
In the appeals acted on Monday, lawyers for Arkansas and the term-limits organization said the amendment bars no one from running for Congress but merely limits ballot access.
The amendment is a legitimate effort by voters to ensure that the advantages of incumbency do not create "modern-day legislative fiefdoms that . . . render the political process unresponsive to the electorate," the state said.
Lawyers for the League of Women Voters and others who had successfully challenged the amendment said its "unconstitutionality is especially clear."
They said the ability to run as a write-in candidate is not a valid substitute for appearing on the printed ballot.
Washington's term-limit amendment barred anyone from the ballot for U.S. Senate who had served in the Senate for 12 of the previous 18 years, and barred anyone from running on the House ballot who had been a representative for six of the previous 12 years.