High court to rule on term limits

June 21, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to settle a core constitutional question that reaches back to America's founding and now fuels a hot political controversy: states' power to limit congressional terms.

The "term limits" movement, a spreading campaign that has capitalized on voters' deep discontent with politics, has lost two key battles in lower courts over limits on the number of terms a lawmaker may serve in the House or Senate.

Now, the nation's highest court has agreed to hear an Arkansas case, the first major test case on the question. The Arkansas Supreme Court struck down a voter-approved state constitutional amendment that would limit House members to three two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms.

If the Supreme Court ultimately nullifies congressional term limits, states could not have such measures unless the Constitution was amended -- an unlikely prospect. If the court upholds such measures, it would likely encourage a further spread of limits on Capitol Hill incumbents' service and could end the careers of scores of longtime members of Congress.

Already, 14 states in addition to Arkansas have congressional term limits, and similar proposals may get on fall election ballots in as many as eight other states.

Term-limits proposals have been very popular, gaining heavy margins of approval in the 15 states that now have them. Each measure has been enacted by the direct action of state voters. The movement that is promoting the idea describes itself as "the most significant grass-roots political phenomenon of recent years."

The Supreme Court's decision may not come until next spring.

As the court prepares to take up the Arkansas case in the fall, another case, challenging the Washington state limits and threatening the future of House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, will move ahead in a federal appeals court based in California. The Supreme Court refused yesterday to take that case out of the appeals court's hands.

The court two years ago refused to second-guess states that limit the terms of governors, other state officials and members of state legislatures. But that decision had nothing to do with congressional term limits.

Constitutional focus

When the justices take up the congressional terms issue, they will be focusing on two parts of the Constitution: one that limits the qualifications that must be met to run for Congress, and one that allows states to decide how to conduct congressional elections.

Opponents of term limits contend that those measures add unconstitutional qualifications for a congressional candidacy -- the view that carried the day in the Arkansas Supreme Court. Supporters of term limits counter that their proposal is nothing but a ballot-access restriction, within the discretion of states.

Under the Arkansas proposal, limits on the terms of incumbents were to take effect Jan. 1, 1993, thus threatening to disqualify those serving on that date only after they had been in the House six more years and in the Senate for 12 more. That delayed enforcement is a feature of most of the state term-limits proposals.

The Supreme Court acted on the term-limits dispute as one of a series of actions yesterday.

In a surprising move, the court turned aside a plea by the federal government to revive a ban on "English-only" rules in the workplace: that is, company policies that require all employees to speak and write only in English while doing work.

A lower court nullified the ban. The justices' action in bypassing that case could affect some 32 million workers.

Only one federal appeals court, in California, has nullified the ban, but that court sets federal law for nine Western states with more than 10 million people who speak a primary language other than English.

The appeals court ruling also sets a precedent that might be followed by others. The Supreme Court would not be likely to review the issue unless the lower courts reach contradictory rulings on it.

The Clinton administration had urged the court to save the English-only ban, imposed in varying forms since 1970 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer last month vetoed a bill adopted by the General Assembly that would have made English the state's official language.

Federal elections panel

The court agreed to decide, at its next term, whether the Federal Elections Commission was unconstitutional since its creation in 1974 because Congress saved two of the FEC seats for members of its own staff. A lower court struck down that membership requirement and suggested that all of the agency's actions from the beginning probably were invalid because of it.

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