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United States Term Limits v. Thornton (1995)

Last Updated: 2019

A powerful movement for term limits developed during the 1980’s. Most states adopted term limits for members of the state legislature (many governors were already term limited). Nearly half the states sought to place term limits on members of the state delegations to Congress. The 1994 Republican Party’s “Contract With America” included a term limits plank, with many Republican representatives pledging to serve a fixed number of terms even if not legally term limited. Proponents of the term limits movement, which dates to the anti-Federalists, believed greater rotation would prevent government from being dominated by professional politicians who they thought were increasingly insulated from their constituents. Opponents feared that term limits would leave government lacking experience and expertise, as well as denying citizens the right to elect the person of their choice for as long as that person remained their choice.

The Supreme Court of the United States weighed in on the constitutionality of federal term limits (state term limits are a matter of state constitutional law) in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995). The case arose after Arkansas ratified a state constitution amendment that forbade candidates from appearing on the ballot if they had served three terms in the House of Representatives or two terms in the Senate (the candidates could stage a write-in campaign). Congressperson Ray Thornton and other federal officeholders filed a lawsuit claiming the state constitutional amendment attached new conditions to congressional membership in violation of Article I. Proponents of the amendment claimed that the amendment did not forbid anyone from serving in Congress, but merely acknowledged the advantages incumbents enjoyed during elections. Both the trial court and the Arkansas Supreme Court declared the amendment unconstitutional. U.S. Term Limits, a group that had sponsored term limit amendments, appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Supreme Court of the United States by a five to four vote declared federal term limits unconstitutional. Justice John Paul Stevens’s majority opinion made originalist and democratic arguments. His originalist argument maintained that “the framers intended the qualifications listed in the Constitution to be exclusive.” States could neither add nor subtract from those qualifications. The democratic argument asserted that “the fundamental principle of our representative democracy” is “that the people should choose whom they please to govern them.” Democratic principles are violated when states ban popular figures from seeking multiple reelections. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion insisted that federalism did not govern congressional elections. “Nothing in the Constitution” he declared, “supports the idea of state interference with the most basic relation between the National Government and its citizens, the selection of legislative representatives.”

The four most conservative justices on the Rehnquist Court dissented. Justice Clarence Thomas asserted, “Nothing in the Constitution deprives the people of each State the power to prescribe eligibility requirements for the candidates who seek to represent them in Congress,” Thomas reached this conclusion from the premise that the Constitution was ratified by the people in individual states and not the people as a whole. From this premise, he drew the conclusion that “Where the constitution is silent about the exercise of a particular power . . ., the Federal Government lacks the power and the States enjoy it.” The Constitution does not say whether the qualifications for Congress listed in Article I are exclusive, therefore, the dissent maintained, states could add to those qualifications.

U.S. Term Limits slowed the movement for term limits. While the remnants of the movement exercise some influence over contemporary constitutional politics, the issue no longer mobilizes voters as in the past. A few elected officials who promised to retire after serving a fixed number of terms did. Most did not.