Arkansas Rejection of Term-Limits Rule Stands
By Joan Biskupic
In another defeat for proponents of term limits, the Supreme Court yesterday effectively ensured that an Arkansas initiative aimed at forcing state lawmakers to back term limits will not become law.
The justices let stand a ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court that struck down a voter initiative requiring state legislators and members of Congress to use the power of their offices to support congressional term limits, and to penalize those who refuse.
One component of that measure, sometimes referred to as the "scarlet letter" provision, said officials who failed to push for term limits would have "Disregarded Voter Instruction on Term Limits" printed in capital letters next to their names on ballots.
"We will continue to fight in the trenches to enact term limits on Congress," said Paul Jacob, executive director of the advocacy group that backed the initiative. He said that although the Supreme Court spurned the case from Arkansas, killing that state's "instruct and inform" law, several other states have similar laws and court challenges are still pending. The high court could eventually weigh in on a battle from another state, Jacob noted.
Yet yesterday's action -- taken in a one-sentence order and without comment from the justices -- is the latest in a string of losses for the movement to restrict through legislation the tenure of members of Congress.
In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that states themselves may not limit the terms of elected federal legislators. The justices said only an amendment to the Constitution could restrict terms.
But attempts to change the Constitution have failed. Earlier this month, the House defeated a constitutional amendment that would have limited the time federal lawmakers serve to 12 years. This time around, backers of term limits received even fewer votes than they did when the issue was voted on in 1995 as part of the GOP's "Contract With America."
The Arkansas law at issue in yesterday's case said it was the will of the voters that no one be a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for more than three terms (a total of six years) or a senator for more than two terms, 12 years total. The law further requires Arkansas state and federal legislators to use the power of their office to amend the Constitution in this way.
After a challenge to the proposed amendment by Eugenia T. Donovan of Little Rock, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck it down last October, saying the measure violated the constitutional requirement that all amendments to the Constitution originate in Congress or state legislatures. The court said that the amendment was an attempt to give legislative powers to the people.
"Clearly, the proposed Amendment 9 is nothing more than a coercive attempt to compel the Arkansas General Assembly to do as the alleged majority of the people wish, without any intellectual debate, deliberation, or consideration of whether such action is in the best interest of all the people of this state," the state court said.
The Arkansas court's action would have stripped the proposed initiative from the November ballot, but the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it to stay on -- pending resolution of the case -- which came yesterday. When the initiative was voted on last fall, it passed with 61 percent of the vote.
In the state's appeal to the justices, Attorney General Winston Bryant said the lower court ruling "wrongly limits the role of the people in our federal scheme." He said the people should be able to express their preference for term limits or any other constitutional change and urge action on the part of state officials.
Arkansas Term Limits had intervened on behalf of the state, and in the Supreme Court, the states of Nebraska, Colorado, South Carolina and South Dakota supported Arkansas' appeal. Yesterday's joint cases were Arkansas Term Limits v. Donovan and Arkansas v. Donovan.
Separately yesterday, the court refused to intervene in a controversial case between developers and former tenants of a Northwest Washington apartment building. Seven years ago, a jury found the Jonathan Woodner Co. and Steven Z. Laufer liable for forcing residents out of the Park Tower building on 16th Street NW in part by allowing it to deteriorate while they planned to turn the units into condominiums. A jury awarded former tenants compensatory damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and assessed punitive damages.
The justices let stand the $965,000 compensatory award to nine former tenants. A separate $15 million punitive damages award had been reversed by a lower court and is still subject to further proceedings. The case is Jonathan Woodner Co. vs. Breeden.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company