WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court left the clear impression yesterday that states are free under the Constitution to put strict limits on the time state officials may serve in office and then ban them from those posts for the rest of their lives.
It turned aside, without comment, the first constitutional challenge to reach it in the still-spreading campaign to impose term limits -- an effort that may put the issue on the ballot in 18 states this fall.
Although the court did not offer its own views on the constitutionality of term limits, its order left intact a California Supreme Court ruling that had upheld state officers' term limits against a sweeping constitutional attack.
What remains in the aftermath of yesterday's Supreme Court order is the potential for a separate attack on term limits when they are imposed on members of Congress; that raises some different constitutional issues. California has not yet put any limits on congressional service, and thus that was not at issue in the case before the justices.
In almost every state where a term-limits proposal is likely to be before the voters this fall, service limits would be imposed on congressional as well as on state legislative officials and other state officials.
Although a proposal to limit terms has been introduced in the Maryland General Assembly, it is considered unlikely to be passed.
Under the new California approach, members of the state Senate may serve two four-year terms, members of the state Assembly may serve three two-year terms, governors and other state officers mayserve two four-year terms -- and, after that, all are barred from ever again seeking those offices. But they may run for other posts.
The California measure, adopted by the voters in 1990 -- the year that Colorado and Oklahoma also approved term limits -- was designed expressly to get "career politicians" out of office.
The Supreme Court's action "couldn't have come at a better time," said Jim Coyne, president of Americans to Limit Congressional Terms, one of the leading groups in the nationwide term-limits campaign. "This is in the middle of our petition drive; we will be trying to collect 3 1/2 million signatures over the next three months" to get the issue on state ballots in November.
Stuart Rothenberg, editor of Rothenberg Political Report, a newsletter that has been tracking the term-limits movement, said the Supreme Court's refusal to hear the California case "is like pouring gasoline on the term limits fire."
He said it would "energize the activists" and put the issue back intonational headlines.
Linda Rogers-Kingsbury, executive director of one of the main anti-limits organizations, Let the People Decide, said she was surprised by the court's action.
The court order, she speculated, "may help fund-raising on the other side."
The California limits had been challenged by leaders of the state legislature and various California activist groups.