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Calif. Term Limits Beat Challenge

By Joan Biskupic
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 1998; Page A09

The Supreme Court yesterday permitted California to continue enforcing term limits for its state lawmakers, potentially reassuring states across the country that have sought to curtail the tenure of elected state officials.

California's restrictions on its politicians are among the strictest in the country. Nearly half of the states set some term limits on their legislators and two-thirds restrict the tenure of their governors.

Without a recorded vote or comment, the justices let stand a lower court opinion that said California voters have a constitutional right to limit the terms of their legislators and ban them for life after they have served their tenure.

"Term limits on state officeholders is a neutral candidacy qualification, such as age or residence, which the state certainly has the right to impose," the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had written in an opinion. "Long-term entrenched legislators may obtain excessive power which in turn may discourage other qualified candidates from running for office, or may provide the incumbent with an unfair advantage in winning reelection."

Yesterday's order leaving that decision intact sets no national precedent but heartened proponents of term limits in other states who want to blunt the political clout of incumbency and face several legal challenges in lower courts. While the justices have never decided the merits of restricting state officials' tenure, in 1995, they ruled that states may not set a limit on the number of terms their representatives in Congress serve. The court said such an effort would violate the uniform national character of Congress sought by the nation's founders.

In California, a 1990 referendum, approved with 52 percent of the vote, bars members of the state Assembly from serving more than three two-year terms and members of the state Senate from serving more than two terms, or eight years. Those limits are expected to force more than two dozen state lawmakers from office this year.

Former California assemblyman Tom Bates (D) was among the state legislators who challenged the limits as unconstitutional. A panel of the 9th Circuit initially ruled in their favor, saying voters had not been sufficiently informed about the 1990 term limits initiative and may not have realized they were keeping former officials from ever running again. Other states have term limits that permit politicians to run after they have sat out a specified time.

But the full 9th Circuit reversed the appellate panel's decision in December and upheld the term limits.

"The long nightmare of politicians suing the voters is over," Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, said after yesterday's order in Bates vs. Jones. "The politicians lost and the people won."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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