Supreme Court strikes down ballot labels 'Scarlet letter' notation cites term limits opposition

February 25, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Less than two weeks after a proposed constitutional amendment to impose term limits on Congress failed in the House, supporters of the movement lost another round in the Supreme Court yesterday.

Without comment, the court turned aside the first effort by a state to punish its members of Congress for failing to endorse the term limits preferred by home-state voters.

A ballot measure approved in Arkansas would have placed a notation next to the name of congressional candidates on a voting ballot who failed to fight for the term limits favored in their states.

The notation would have read, "Disregarded Voter Instruction on Term Limits," or some variation. This initiative -- to mandate so-called "scarlet letters" for candidates -- was nullified in Arkansas by the state Supreme Court.

Yesterday, Arkansas' appeal was turned aside by the Supreme Court, apparently with no dissent.

Nine states endorsed the "scarlet letter" maneuver in initiatives in November, the first time such an approach had been put to voters anywhere in the nation. The idea failed in five other states last fall. The issue was not on the ballot in Maryland.

When the House rejected the proposed constitutional amendment Feb. 12, 18 representatives from five states voted in ways that would have triggered ballot labels in the future, according to U.S. Term Limits, the private group that is the main supporter of the "scarlet letter" approach.

Three of those 18 House members were from Arkansas, and the Supreme Court's action probably means that they cannot be labeled with the "scarlet letter" at the next election.

The Arkansas Supreme Court rejected the state's initiative last fall, saying that voters could not use a ballot initiative to try to amend the Constitution.

Advocates of term limits argued yesterday that they had lost only a skirmish, not the war. Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, said other cases around the country were still testing the initiatives. A possible split in lower court decisions, he said, could send the issue back to the Supreme Court. "Our day in court will come," Jacobs said.

"Scarlet letter" initiatives are under challenge in four other states, according to U.S. Term Limits: Idaho, Maine, Missouri and Nebraska.

The Supreme Court's action marked the fourth significant setback for supporters of term limits in the past two years. The court, in a 5-4 ruling in 1995, said that a constitutional amendment was the only way that congressional term limits could be adopted. A proposed amendment has lost twice in the House -- in 1995, and again this month, with fewer supporter votes than the first time.

The House voted Feb. 12 in a complex series of votes on proposed term limits. Different versions were put to a test as Republican House leaders tried to help individual states' lawmakers satisfy their own states' mandates.

Arkansas' voters were allowed to act on that proposal in November, despite the Arkansas Supreme Court decision that it was beyond the voters' power. That was because the Supreme Court, in a temporary action, had allowed the initiative to go before the voters. It then won approval, 61 percent to 39 percent.

Yesterday, when the justices refused Arkansas' appeal, they left intact an Arkansas voter's victory, which went into effect yesterday, in the state court ruling.

In another action yesterday, the court declined to review a Texas state court ruling that the constitutional right of privacy does not extend to adultery. A police officer in Sherman, Texas, raised that issue after he was denied a promotion because of an affair with another officer's wife.

The court agreed to rule on other issues: the scope of prosecutors' immunity to civil rights lawsuits for using falsified data to obtain a search warrant and the right of citizens to force companies to disclose releases of toxic chemicals into the environment.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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