Philip Blumel: A Supreme reform. Hi, I’m Philip Blumel. Welcome to No Uncertain Terms, the official podcast of the term limits movement for the week of July 26th, 2021.
Stacey Selleck: Your sanctuary from partisan politics.
Philip Blumel: Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court, held another meeting last week in which experts paraded before the commissioners promoting or opposing ideas to improve the court. Many of these ideas are partisan and controversial, but a consensus seems to be coalescing around one proposed reform, term limits. Let’s talk to US Term Limits Executive Director Nick Tomboulides on the prospects for SCOTUS term limits and what that could mean to the greater term limits movement’s goals. Hey Nick. We got some national term limits news, not on the congressional front, but on the Supreme Court front. What can we expect from that?
Nick Tomboulides: Well, you know what the Supreme Court is, right?
Philip Blumel: I think you should tell me.
Nick Tomboulides: It’s just a regular court with tomatoes and sour cream.
Philip Blumel: [laughter] Okay.
Nick Tomboulides: No, so… Yeah, the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court, which was formed by Joe Biden to study the court, study reforms, they’ve been holding meetings and they’ve brought in a lot of legal beagle experts to testify, and those experts have been pretty unanimous in support of one thing, and that is adding term limits for the Supreme Court, and it looks like the proposal that’s getting the most traction would be 18 years in one seat, after which time I think the judges might be able to rotate down to the lower federal courts and basically, this would go a long way, it would de-politicize the confirmation hearings, it would end a lot of this gamesmanship where judges are trying to time their retirements or not time their retirements based on which president is in office, so the court is acting super politically right now, and if term limits are adopted, I think, we’d help solve that problem.
Philip Blumel: Yeah, the 18-year limit is the one we’ve been talking about for years. It seems reasonable, you wanna have a long term limit for this purpose… In legislature, of course you don’t, as we talk about, but for the… You do wanna have an aloofness and actually a separation between the people and judges that you don’t wanna see in a legislature, and 18 makes sense mathematically, because it means under normal circumstances, each president would get to choose two Supreme Court Judges, and that gives a certain amount of fairness to it, and also makes it really clear what you’re voting for when you’re voting for president, that you’re probably gonna have two justices chosen during this person’s term.
Nick Tomboulides: We’ve known, obviously, for a long time in this organization how popular term limits are, but it was apparently news to some of these members of Joe Biden’s Commission because, I have a quote here… This is from Commissioner Michael Waldman, who is also the president of the Brennan Center for Justice, said, “It has been striking for us as members of the Commission how widespread the support for term limits is across the political spectrum.” So it would help the court immensely, it’s a good alternative to court packing, which some people have floated as a reform, but which is extremely partisan and very unpopular with certain segments of the population and would only benefit one political party or the other. The interests of justice are not served at all by that, but they’re definitely served by term limits, which would benefit presidents on both sides of the aisle who would have an opportunity to make their mark on the court.
Philip Blumel: Right, and I think we should be clear that this Commission is put together for the purpose of discussing lots of different ideas, term limits is only one, but you know what, it’s really the only one that appears to be getting real traction or a consensus, like you said, most of these other ideas… Actually most of these other ideas are basically intended to somehow game the system to get what they want out of the court, not just to improve the way the court functions, which is what you’re trying to get from term limits.
Nick Tomboulides: It’s because part of that is just the practical politics, they’re not gonna get anything done without a bipartisan consensus. Our country keeps flipping back and forth between different parties controlling the White House and Congress. The Democrats have 50 seats in the Senate right now. If you need a constitutional amendment, as we’ve stated, you need a two-thirds vote, so something that is highly unpopular with one side of the political spectrum or the other, has no chance in hell, has no prayer, whereas term limits is overwhelmingly popular with a super majority of Americans, regardless of political affiliation. There is some debate though on whether this would require a constitutional amendment or just a statute, is there not?
Philip Blumel: Oh right, yeah, that’s actually a big question, and that’s one that I think that we might even be torn about in a way. You would think it would require a constitutional amendment, but that’s not necessarily true because there’s no bar from Congress doing it in the Constitution, except for… In Article III, when it talks about the court, it says that the federal judges, “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” Well…
Nick Tomboulides: If that were true, we wouldn’t have federal Judges.[laughter]
Philip Blumel: I guess that’s right too, but it also means…
Nick Tomboulides: Can you double-check that?
Philip Blumel: Hey, I’m looking at it right here. Article III.
Nick Tomboulides: No, yeah, lots of scholars have interpreted that to mean that Supreme Court Justices serve for life, but like I mentioned before, if you can rotate them down to a lower court within the federal system, are they not then still holding Federal office and ceding way to new blood on the Supreme Court.
Philip Blumel: Yeah, that’s a little clever. It’s a little clever, and I gotta tell you, I tend not to like that kind of finding a way to do it, jurisprudence, but at the same time, it actually does seem to fit the legal situation, the Congress is not barred from doing this, it’s not… The rules are not set in the Constitution, except for that they serve during good behavior. So if a new framework would take into account that judges will stay in office as long as they’re in good behavior, then I guess it’ll pass constitutional muster. There’ll be a fight. There’ll be a fight. There wouldn’t be a fight if it was done by traditional means, and the Constitution was just amended to do this, but I think there’ll be a fight over whether or not it can be done by a statute.
Nick Tomboulides: It would still be a big step in the right direction. It would eliminate a lot of the circus, a lot of the partisanship.
Philip Blumel: It would.
Nick Tomboulides: It would ensure that our nation’s laws are not so highly dependent on when these judges either die or move to Boca, and it would get those two all important words into the national conversation, term limits.
Philip Blumel: Term limits.
Nick Tomboulides: Yes, it would get the ball rolling and it might spark a discussion of, “Hey, we’ve got term limits for the executive branch, now we’re discussing term limits for the judicial branch.” If I remember fifth grade Civics, there’s another branch of government out there that doesn’t have any term limits, maybe they should be next.
Philip Blumel: Maybe they should be next.
Nick Tomboulides: And what’s interesting is the White House, they brought in experts on term limits for this Commission, and yet here we are, the oldest, largest and dare I say wisest term limits group across these fruited plains, and we weren’t invited. I never got a call, never got a fax, never got a telex, never got an email. Did you?
Philip Blumel: No, and surely they saw your YouTube video of speaking in front of the Senate committee or maybe that’s why you weren’t invited.
Nick Tomboulides: Probably because they knew if we got in on the action, we would be asking why Congress is leaving itself out of the equation here.
Philip Blumel: Yeah, well, they’re right, we would. Okay, well, that’s great. That is progress, and I’ll tell you what, this Commission is gonna meet a few more times, they are scheduled to submit their final report to President Biden on November 14th. So we’ll see what comes out of that and we’ll report on it.
Nick Tomboulides: Definitely.[music]
Philip Blumel: California Congressman Eric Swalwell, is best known for his girlfriend, Christina Fang, also known as Fang Fang, who had to flee the country after being identified by the FBI as a Chinese spy. But this year, the 40-year-old Congressman is being investigated as it’s being alleged he is spending tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions on liquor, limos, high end steakhouses and five-star hotels. Something prohibited by federal law. Naturally, someone who’s so enthusiastically embraces the special opportunities of power is hardly likely to wanna give it up. And indeed, representative Swalwell has refused to sign the US term limits Congressional pledge, which would commit him to co-sponsor and vote for the Congressional term limits amendment. Like his relationship with Fang Fang and his lavish lifestyle, term limits is not something the Congressman likes to discuss. In 2019, CNN’s Poppy Harlow made representative Swalwell squirm with this simple question.
Poppy Harlow: Term limits, interesting proposal by Republican Senator Ted Cruz and also Republican Francis Rooney. It proposes a constitutional amendment, and it would instill term limits for both the Senate two terms and three two-year terms for the House. Do you support that?
Erick Swalwell: I think the best term limit is to have public financing of campaigns and independent redistricting. I’d beat a 40-year…
Poppy Harlow: So that’s a no.
Erick Swalwell: That’s a no and…
Poppy Harlow: That’s a no to a constitutional amendment.
Erick Swalwell: But…
Philip Blumel: Congress comes with lots of perks, some legal. For instance, Swalwell and his wife, yes, he’s married, traveled to Qatar in the Middle East on a junket paid for by the US-Qatar Business Council. This trip got him in hot water too as while he was being photographed smiling and riding shirtless on a camel, his constituents were in lockdown in California due to a pandemic. The Qatar trip was legal, but misuse of campaign contributions is not. You recall from a previous corruption segment on this podcast that Duncan Hunter, a Republican and his wife were busted doing the same thing, albeit on a larger scale. Hunter spent 11 months in prison. Specifically, Representative Swalwell is accused of spending over $20,000 of campaign money at the Ritzy Half Moon Bay Resort on the Northern California Coast, including on limos and liquor. He also spent over $7000 at high end steakhouses in DC and New York City.
Philip Blumel: FEC reports suggest he has also spent $566 on alcohol delivery from Drizly and $1151 at Capitol Hill Wine and Spirits near Congress. Some of that money may have been solicited by Fang Fang who was a financial contribution bundler for the Swalwell campaign. According to the FBI, Fang Fang had struck up relationships with municipal politicians, including two Midwest mayors, but they didn’t name, before moving on to Swalwell, who was then a Dublin California Councilman. She was a member of the Chinese student association at California State University East Bay, where she enrolled after arriving in the States in 2021.
Philip Blumel: Assisting Swalwell in being elected to Congress in 2013, Fang continued to work with Swalwell until she was alerted of the FBI investigation and returned to China in 2015. Swalwell broke off all ties with her right away. The relationship almost cost Representative Swalwell his seat on the House Intelligence Committee, but didn’t. Regardless whether or not Swalwell crossed the line into illegality with his wild recreational spending, we’ll find out soon enough, but the archetype of the power-seeking, women chasing, free spending partier is no stranger in the US Congress or any other legislative body, this is why term limits are so necessary and why politicians lose them.[music]
Philip Blumel: There’s some other national term limits news this week, the issue popped up in the… Was it Alabama Senate race?
Nick Tomboulides: Yeah, that’s right. In one of the more hotly contested Senate primaries in the country, you’ve got Alabama, US Senator Richard Shelby, who is one of the Senate’s Young Guns at 87. He is hanging up his boots after six terms. So that seat will be open next year. And one of the front runners for that seat, actually Senator Shelby’s former Chief of Staff, Katie Britt has just made some negative comments about term limits… Well maybe I consider them a bit negative, you might say they’re ambivalent.
Nick Tomboulides: She has said, “We need to protect seniority in the Senate, seniority is very important for Alabama,” and so she won’t commit to term limits and she has not signed the US term limits pledge yet, which is really the key indicator. So we’re playing wait and see here, keep in mind, she’s got opponents, she’s got three major opponents, Congressman Mo Brooks, businesswoman, Jessica Taylor, and Ambassador Lynda Blanchard, and all three of her our opponents have signed the US term limits pledge, Katie Britt has not signed because she claims Alabama needs seniority in the Senate.
Philip Blumel: [chuckle] Well, it’s got some of that.
Nick Tomboulides: Now, seniority is just another word for career politicians, by the way.
Philip Blumel: Yeah. Yeah, and in fact, one of the benefits of term limits is that it levels the seniority between members, and it doesn’t mean that once you’ve been elected and re-elected and then therefore can’t lose elections anymore, that you automatically are at the top of the heap, and in charge of the entire body. So the fact that when somebody claims that that seniority is so valuable, what they are really saying is that the status Quo is great, and that the same people that are in power should remain there.
Nick Tomboulides: Well, I don’t know why we never study the cause and effect, I hear politicians say this, sometimes, “We need seniority. We need seniority.” Well, that’s what you have. And how’s that working out for you, right? It’s like if you’re looking at a house that’s on fire and you’re saying, “You know what we really need? Some gasoline. We really need some gasoline to pour on this fire.” Seniority is the problem. Seniority is the root of every single problem.
Nick Tomboulides: The ladder climbing, the incumbency, the disconnect from constituents, the lack of fresh faces and ideas, the corruption, the entrenchment, lobbyists and special interests, seniority is the problem. Open your eyes, folks. By the way, in our last state pole in Alabama, this was in 2017, still pretty recent, 81% of Alabamians said they support a constitutional amendment for term limits on Congress. So I think if Katie Britt wants to learn more about this, she just needs to start talking with the people in Alabama, start talking with your possible constituents, ’cause they seem to know this issue better than you do.
Philip Blumel: Yeah, one last thing, this one’s a little more local for us, or at least for me, I’m in South Florida, and it has come to my attention that down in Miami, Miami Beach, there is a gentleman who is just finishing his second four-year term, on the City Commission, of Miami Beach. His name is Michael Góngora, and he is running… He wants to run for a… It’s actually his fourth term, his the first term was not a complete one, ’cause he was appointed, but he wants to run for his fourth term, after finishing his second full term, and he’s running into a little problem, and that is that in 2014, voters with 71% of the vote, passed a eight-year term limit law that was retroactive, and he claimed it doesn’t apply to him. What do you think about that?
Nick Tomboulides: It kind of reminds me of George Costanza on Seinfeld when he kept showing up for work even after he got fired, just hoping nobody would notice. This guy… He is suing the city, he’s claiming that basically that he’s above the law, that term limits don’t apply to him because it was passed after he got elected. Have you ever heard of the word retroactivity? Bob?
Philip Blumel: He claims it doesn’t specifically say that it’s retroactive.
Nick Tomboulides: It actually does, the word retroactive is in…
Philip Blumel: Yeah, I know, It does, I have it right here.
Nick Tomboulides: It’s right there in the ballot measure, there was even an attorney who was quoted as saying… Local attorney, Juan Planas. I’ve been very honest with him that I don’t think he has a case… Well, there you go.[laughter]
Philip Blumel: Well the city… He turned in his paperwork to run and within 30 minutes of doing so, I think it was about 30 minutes of doing so, the city attorney contacted him and said, “Look, just ’cause we took your paperwork doesn’t mean that we’re accepting it, I mean, you are not eligible to run in this town,” so the politician didn’t circle their wagons around him, which sometimes happens, but it didn’t happen in this case. They immediately said, “What? Are you kidding? The voters just overwhelmingly passed this retroactive eight-year term limit and you’re running for your fourth term?” Oh, man…
Nick Tomboulides: By the way, just editorial comment here.
Philip Blumel: That’s Fair.
Nick Tomboulides: How many people live in Miami Beach? Is it… It’s probably 100,000, right?
Philip Blumel: Oh gosh, you know what? That’s probably fair. I don’t know. Yeah.
Nick Tomboulides: And they probably have five people on the city council, they have term limits, eight-year term limits, so every eight years you have to find a new councilman. But we’re being told by this guy that in the entire city of Miami Beach, in that entire population of 100,000 people, there isn’t one person who can do as good, or a better job as Michael Góngora? He is the indispensable man, he’s like a modern day Teddy Roosevelt, and without his public service, the city is just gonna become overrun with poverty and crime and malaise. Is that what politicians actually believe?
Philip Blumel: No, they don’t. You know what? Well he told his friends… He was quoted as telling his friends… This is… Or maybe a little bit rumor like, but it was from a blog or something, but he was telling his friends how he thinks there’s a loophole in the law that he can get around. That’s what he was thinking. Nothing so grand as that. He’s just a little rat looking for a piece of cheese, and he thinks he found it.
Nick Tomboulides: I think when City Council members look in the mirror, they see some combination of Gandhi, JFK and George Washington, because they seem to believe they are irreplaceable. It’s amazing.
Philip Blumel: Well, they need a new mirror.[laughter] [music]
Philip Blumel: Thanks for joining us for another episode of No Uncertain Terms. The Term Limits Convention bills are moving through the state legislatures. This could be a break through year for the Term Limits Movement. To check on the status of the term limits convention resolution in your state, go to termlimits.com/takeaction. There, you will see if it has been introduced and where it stands in the committee process on its way to the floor vote. If there’s action to take, you’ll see a “Take Action” button by your state, click it. This will give you the opportunity to send a message to the most relevant legislators, urging them to support the legislation. They have to know you’re watching.
Philip Blumel: That’s termlimits.com/takeaction. If your state has already passed the Term Limits Convention Resolution, or the bill has not been introduced in your state, you can still help. Please consider making a contribution to US Term Limits. It is our aim to hit the reset button on the US Congress and you can help. Go to termlimits.com/donate, termlimits.com/donate. Thanks. We’ll be back next week.
Stacey Selleck: The revolution isn’t being televised. Fortunately, you have the No Uncertain Terms podcast.
Philip Blumel: USTL.