Even in states and cities where voters have passed term limits by ballot initiative, our supposed servants in legislatures and city councils have self-servingly sued to overturn the democratic decision of the people they claim to work for. Where initiatives could be repealed — Idaho, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Utah come to mind — politicians have repealed them. In places where politicians lack the carte blanche authority to veto the work of the voters, our solons have often forced voters to defeat repeated repeals as well as measures to significantly weaken the limits.
The people of Tampa, Florida, and Nashville, Tennessee, have each voted on term limits four separate times, because after the initial vote to enact the concept, the city councils peppered citizens with measures to repeal or severely weaken the limits. Likewise, legislators in Arkansas, California, Maine and Montana have forced re-votes designed to repeal or weaken their limits.
In Idaho, legislators placed an advisory measure on the ballot asking voters to endorse a repeal of term limits. When the voters advised that they wanted to keep the term limits, the spuds in the state legislature repealed them anyway.
In January of 1993, Wyoming legislators started to gut the term limits passed by 77 percent of the vote just two months earlier. Eventually, fiery public opposition stopped the legislative assault, but years later legislators weakened the limits without consulting the people. When the weakened limits were finally set to bite for the first time, legislators sued in state court arguing that limits could only be enacted by a constitutional amendment that only legislators could propose, not citizens through the initiative. The court struck down the limits and Wyoming legislators — precisely like their counterparts in Illinois and New York City — refuse to act on behalf of the people they pretend to represent.
Nebraska citizens had to pass term limits three times: outrageous court decisions had struck down the first two. The voters backed their third term limit vote by defeating, in a retention election, the state supreme court justice who had authored the negative decisions — the first such defeat for a justice in the states history. That final term limits measure was not-so-mysteriously upheld by the court.
Still, not only did the political and judicial resistance delay the limits first enacted in 1992 from taking effect until 2008, the Nebraska Legislature has now stuck Amendment 3 on this years ballot. If passed — and it wont be — it would weaken the limits by allowing legislators to serve 50 percent longer.
Yesterday, I participated in a forum on state legislative term limits hosted by the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. A number of academics and legislators spoke, along with just two supporters of term limits: Greg Upchurch, a well-respected patent attorney and businessman who led the 1992 Missourians for Limited Terms campaign, was one; I was the other.
The usual issues were debated — experience in office versus experience in the private economy, whether lobbyists and special interests (who hate term limits and have spent considerable sums of money to block or overturn them) are somehow empowered by the limits, and how much credit term limits deserves for not having any speaker convicted and imprisoned for corruption as seemed to be the norm before term limits.
But not discussed enough? Ethics. It is unethical for those holding a position of public trust to refuse to represent the people on the issue of term limits and to instead use their position to serve their own selfish interests. On that, we should all agree.