Judge strikes down term-limit law

February 11, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a major constitutional victory for longtime members of Congress, a federal judge yesterday struck down a Washington state law that limited the number of terms that the lawmakers may serve.

Judge William L. Dwyer of Seattle ruled on a case filed by House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a 15-term Democrat from Spokane. The judge accepted all the major challenges raised by opponents of term limits.

Judge Dwyer said the term limits add unconstitutional qualifications for those who want to run for Congress, interfere with candidates' free-speech rights and voters' election rights, and discriminate against incumbents in Washington state and their supporters.

This marked the first time that a federal judge had ruled on the constitutionality of term limits, an initiative that has gained wide popularity. Fifteen states have laws limiting congressional terms.

Judge Dwyer decided the case just 30 days after holding a hearing -- unusually speedy action on a major constitutional dispute. His ruling is expected to be tested on appeal and ultimately to reach the Supreme Court.

Speaker Foley treated the victory as just a beginning, saying the Dwyer decision "provides an important framework for the resolution of one of the most important constitutional questions of the decade."

Former U.S. Attorney General Griffin B. Bell, lawyer for the supporters of the term-limit measure, called the decision yesterday "a historic first step to the U.S. Supreme Court."

A state judge in Arkansas last summer was the first judge to strike down term limits, nullifying congressional and state legislative limits in that state. That case will come up for a hearing in the state Supreme Court on Monday.

The key element of Judge Dwyer's ruling was that term limits wrongly add qualifications to those that are specifically spelled out in the Constitution: that a member of the House must be 25 years old, a U.S. citizen for seven years and a resident of the state represented. A senator must be 35, a citizen for nine years, and a resident of the state represented.

But Judge Dwyer went beyond the qualifications issue. In also nullifying the term limits for other constitutional reasons, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the judge significantly broadened the victory of term-limit opponents.

Supporters of term limits had argued that state legislatures and voters acting on ballot measures have the power, under the Constitution, to control who may get onto the ballot.

Mr. Foley, joined by the League of Women Voters and by citizens of his state, filed the constitutional challenge in June. He said he would continue to seek re-election as long as his state's voters would re-elect him.

If the Washington state limits were to go into effect, Mr. Foley, by the end of this year, would have served longer than the limits permitted. Under the measure, Mr. Foley would not have to give up his seat until January 1999 because the limits would not have begun taking effect until 1992. He and others who had exceeded the limits, however, would have been free to try to get elected by write-in campaigns.

Judge Dwyer's ruling was limited to state attempts to limit the number of terms that a member of Congress may serve. Under the Washington measure, members of the House may serve only three terms -- six years -- and U.S. senators may serve only two terms -- 12 years.

The Washington limits on congressional terms were adopted by state voters in 1992 as part of the strongest wave of anti-incumbent sentiment since the term-limit campaign began in earnest three years ago. Thirteen other states also imposed limits in 1992 elections. The major constitutional battle these days over term limits involves congressional terms. The Supreme Court has refused to hear a challenge to limits on state and local officials' terms but has not had a chance to rule on similar controls on congressional incumbents.

The leaders of the term-limit movement have likened their campaign to the Progressive movement that had resulted in government reforms early in the 20th century.

Their campaign has been fueled by voter resentment with modern politics and politicians, and by a growing alienation of many voters from officials who they believe no longer are in touch with their constituents.

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