Term Limits Versus Life Tenure

Term Limits

Last week, two announcements were made in relation to term limits in government. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced his retirement in 2016, and on Saturday, prospective presidential candidate Mike Huckabee commented that he believed that the founding fathers never intended Supreme Court Justices to retain their positions for a lifetime.

Designated as the source of much corruption, this topic hinges on the simply drafted Qualification Clauses found in the U.S. Constitution. There are parallels between these clauses, but the issue of interest here is term limits. Only the president is restrained by this limitation and it is enforced upon him by the twenty-second amendment. Office holders of the Senate and House agree with the Supreme Court in their opinion that their tenures are meant to be limited only by the voters of their states. Justice Stevens discusses this in his majority opinion in U.S. Term Limits v. Thorton.

Term Limits

Limiting provisions have been rather common in state constitutions in the past, yet since U.S. Term Limits, these state constitution clauses have increasingly been found unconstitutional. Six states have overturned their terms limit provisions, (Massachusetts, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Utah, and Oregon). Yet, fifteen states still hold limiting clauses in their legislature. One state’s term limits clause that has gained much attention is California’s. Here, the lower courts have tried to strike down the law, but the higher courts have declined to do so on appeal. Judge Reinhardt for this court explained, “[w]e do not decide whether a state may adopt lifetime limits for its legislators without violating the Constitution.”

This debate continues within state legislatures, although the Supreme Court has already ruled and will unlikely hear California’s case. In Linda Monk’s article, The Words We Live By, she notes that proponents of term limits claim that life appointments create an environment where individuals in office can simply advocate their own special interests, while opponents argue that the Constitution provides limits through electors. The Court in U.S. Term Limits explains that if a state wanted to change the Qualification Clauses that dictate the terms of a legislator in office, it would require a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In his dissent, Justice Thomas argues that where the Constitution is vague there is room for interpretation, but where the Constitution provides a mechanism for change, for example the elector process, amendments, these should be utilized. If a senator is ill-suited to hold his office, he should be voted out, or perhaps proponents of service limits can suffice. This was is what was done after Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office during his forth term. Therefore, proponents state the legislature should pass a new amendment.

Reid and Huckabee bring to the nation’s attention an issue that has been in the light since this nation’s first Congress. George Washington imposed the presidential term limit upon himself, and everyone of his successors followed his example except Roosevelt. If Congress wished to fundamentally change this governmental function on their own, there would need to be a call of action by congressmen to congressmen themselves.

By Joel Wickwire



Fox News

NCSL National Conference of State Legislatures

The L.A. Times

Linda Monk, “The Words We Live By” (2003).

U.S. Term Limits v. Thorton 514 U.S. 770 (1995).

Photo by Geri Kodey – Flickr License

Photo by Joye~ – Flickr License

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