by Nick McNulty
We recently passed a very sad anniversary in American history, as May 22 marked 25 years since a divided U.S. Supreme Court deprived all Americans of the ability to term limit their federal legislators.
Term limits were very popular in the 1990s, as they are today. (Modern polls consistently show a bipartisan majority support for term limits, hovering in the low 80%.) But unlike today, people then were actually free to act upon their desires.
By the time of this ruling, 23 of 50 states had passed some form or another of term limits on their lawmakers. This approached a majority of states, a tipping point which ruling elites knew would spell the end of any hopes to remove limits on federal offices ever again.
Wikipedia describes this time in U.S. history as such: “After World War II … an officeholder class had developed to the point that congressional tenure rivaled that of the U.S. Supreme Court, where tenure is for life. ‘Homesteading,’ or securing a lifelong career in Congress, was made possible by reelection rates that approached 100% by the end of the 20th century. The concept of homesteading brought about a popular movement known as the ‘term-limits movement.’ The elections of 1990–94 saw the adoption of term limits for state legislatures in almost every state where citizens had the power of the initiative. In addition, 23 states limited service in their delegation to Congress.”
It was in this climate, with the country approaching an irrevocable return to true self rule for the first time in a half a century, and likely removing corruption through incumbency from the ruling class forever, that powerful forces used a lingering case in Arkansas to challenge term limits before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court then tragically and mistakenly ruled in May 1995 in U.S. Term Limits Inc. v. Thornton “that the right to choose representatives belongs not to the states, but to the people ….”
It was with twisted logic that Justce John Paul Stevens’ majority declared it would represent the interests of a handful of powerful people to violate not one but 50 states’ rights, sweeping away all Americans’ rights to what Thomas Jefferson called “rotation of office” with one swing of the gavel.
Writing for the four-member minority, Justice Clarence Thomas provides the true and enduring measure of this ruling.
“It is ironic that the court bases today’s decision on the right of the people to ‘choose whom they please to govern them.’ Under our Constitution, there is only one state whose people have the right to ‘choose whom they please’ to represent Arkansas in Congress … Nothing in the Constitution deprives the people of each state of the power to prescribe eligibility requirements for the candidates who seek to represent them in Congress. The Constitution is simply silent on this question. And where the Constitution is silent, it raises no bar to action by the states or the people.”