by Nick Tomboulides
The Supreme Court is back in the spotlight, as the nation debates how to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia. This somber occasion got us reflecting on the time we went before the Supreme Court, to advocate on the people’s behalf for congressional term limits.
The year was 1995, and the case was U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton. With assistance from USTL, the citizens of 23 states had just passed laws putting term limits on their members of Congress. That meant just under half of all congressmen were term-limited, and Congress would soon be forced to propose a term limits amendment applying to everyone.
But it was not to be. A self-interested politician in Arkansas and his donors made a court challenge to void that state’s law. Others followed. After the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled against us, we took it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court decided, in a 5-4 split decision, that citizens are not allowed to term limit their own members of Congress using state laws. They threw out 23 states’ term limits laws in one day. Justice Scalia disagreed, ruling for term limits as part of the dissenting minority.
This was without doubt a low point for term limits. The Court seemed to have shut down every realistic avenue to fight careerism in Washington.
But hidden in their decision was a silver lining:
“State imposition of term limits for congressional service would effect such a fundamental change in the constitutional framework that it must come through a constitutional amendment properly passed under the procedures set forth in Article V.”
Did you catch that? While they had closed the door to term-limiting Congress with state laws, they had opened another by saying it can be done through amendment to the Constitution. That’s the strategy USTL is pursuing today.
The Term Limits Convention uses “the procedures set forth in Article V” to achieve congressional term limits. The Convention is not a state law like those the Court struck down – it is a constitutional call-to-action that comes together when 34 state legislatures have demanded it.
Florida was the first state to make the call, but a dozen more are hot on its heels.
The 1995 decision U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton will never be forgotten. Nor will Scalia. As we remember the role the Supreme Court once played in stopping term limits, we can look forward to the opening it underscored to make congressional term limits a reality.
Nick Tomboulides is the Executive Director of U.S. Term Limits.