Term limits cast legal shadow on next Congress

October 29, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Long after next week's election of new members of Congress, there will be a lingering legal cloud over their political futures.

That's because it might take several years, perhaps six or more, before there is a final court decision settling the constitutionality of the many plans voters seem ready to approve to limit congressional terms.

Sooner or later, a member of Congress from a state with term limits is sure to file a court case to challenge states' power to limit congressional service. Already, with the popularity of term limits growing feverishly, there have been seven state court rulings, but none that settles the issue in a final, definitive way.

The main reason a final answer might be years off is that a court test might have to wait until a member of Congress is up against a term limit and is denied a chance to run for re-election, something that is not likely to occur for six years.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court might have to decide the question. The outcome depends on the way judges read a few clauses in the Constitution and on the guidance to be found in a 1969 high court decision.

Separate clauses in the Constitution's Article I specify that an individual may be elected to Congress only from the state in which he lives on Election Day, that anyone chosen for the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old and a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, and that a senator must be at least 30 years old and a U.S. citizen for at least nine years.

In 1969, in overturning action by the House to bar New York Democratic Rep. Adam Clayton Powell from membership because of misconduct, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress may not add to those constitutional qualifications. Since Mr. Powell met the constitutional requirements and was elected, he had to be seated, the court said.

But the court did not say anything about the power of states to add other qualifications. Thus, it did not answer directly whether a bar to service beyond a set number of years is a new qualification beyond what the Constitution specifies.

To provide that answer, a future court might have to spell out the meaning of another clause in Article I that gives the states the power to pass laws controlling "the times, places and manner of holding elections" of members of Congress. That might be understood as authority to regulate when and how congressional elections are held or as a broader power to decide on qualifications in addition.

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