'Scarlet letter initiative' Term limits ploy: Supreme Court rebuffs this attempt to bypass the Constitution.

March 02, 1997

IN A richly deserved curt dismissal, the Supreme Court has rebuffed states that have sought to bypass it and the Constitution by adopting a pernicious practice known as "scarlet letter initiatives."

Last year, nine states adopted such initiatives, decreeing that if their representatives in Congress did not vote for a specific term-limits provision, their apostasy would be cited on the ballot in subsequent elections.

By a delicious irony, this helped defeat the key legislative effort to pass a proposed constitutional amendment to limit Senate and House service to 12 years in each chamber. Even die-hard term-limits advocates who came from six-year or eight-year states would wind up with "scarlet letters" if they dared to vote for a 12-year limit.

These state initiatives so intimidated representatives from Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada and South Dakota that the 12-year amendment failed to obtain a two-thirds majority by 69 votes -- 10 more than in 1995.

Arguments against any kind of term limits proved persuasive with the Founding Fathers, and they need no rehashing here. But the scarlet letter initiative needs plenty.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that states had no authority to impose term limits in federal elections. Only a constitutional amendment similar to the highly dubious 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms would do.

Nevertheless, the term-limits lobby grabbed onto the time-worn tactic of encouraging voters to enact laws without going through their state legislatures. Fortunately, Maryland does not permit direct initiatives. It has trouble enough with provisions allowing voters to petition for the rejection of laws already on the books. Witness the battle needed to approve an abortion-rights referendum in 1992.

In our view, direct initiatives constitute an assault on this nation's system of representative democracy. Initiatives are a device for demagogy, a maneuver used by special interest groups to exploit populist instincts. Through misleading propaganda they succeed in putting innocuously worded propositions on the ballot that voters mindlessly accept. Let us hope that the Supreme Court, in rejecting Arkansas' law, has put this business to rest.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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