Squirming against term limits

Posted: Dec 11, 2005 12:05 AM

Who's in charge, here? Politicians sometimes pretend it's the people, but that fine old republican notion gets lost in their actions. Consider the way so many politicians fight term limits. The voters put them into law and then their so-called representatives squirm to get out from under them.

Witness the recent writhings in Nebraska.

Actually, there's a long history of anti-term-limit squirm, there.

First time out, the term limits initiative won by 68 percent of the vote. But a challenge to the initial petition wound its way, long after the election, to the state's Supreme Court. The court accepted the opposition's whacko interpretation of the number of petition signatures required to place a measure on the ballot. Their constitutional augury determined the petition signature requirement to be nearly twice the requirement published by the Secretary of State and the Attorney General.

Though the function of petition requirements had been more than fulfilled by the overwhelming majority vote, and though the term limits petition contained far more than the number of signatures state government officials had said were required at the time, the judge threw out the whole term limit amendment. Why? Guess. (Hint: judges, too, are politicians.)

Now, with double the requirements for signature gathering, and a shorter deadline than before, term limit supporters rushed to qualify the initiative for the ballot again. All the mavens said it would take a miracle to get the signatures. The miracle happened, and the initiative went before the voters, who again supported it 68 to 32 percent.

This term limit law included limits not only on terms in the state's unicameral Senate but also on legislators sent to D.C. At that time, a case regarding that same subject was before the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided that only an amendment to the U.S. Constitution could limit by law the terms of U.S. Representatives and Senators. So the same Nebraska Supreme Court seized on the federal decision and threw out the entire term limit law rather than just the provisions to limit terms on federal representation.

Term limit activists got back at the judge who authored the opinions, campaigning against him in a retention vote. For the first time in the state's history, a sitting Supreme Court justice was not retained. Fittingly, the vote against the judge was 68 to 32 percent.

Then the activists put a revised term limit measure on the ballot to limit only state senators. Again a clear majority of Nebraskans imposed term limits on their legislators. But still the anti-term limiters kept their knives sharp.

Earlier this year, the unicameral appeared poised to place a measure on the ballot to either repeal or weaken the term limits. But after the fire storm that erupted when Nebraska voters caught wind of it, Speaker Kermit Brashear of Omaha told the committee considering the bills, "We have been told three times 'no,' and I think we should just give it up."

But the kings and queens of our professionalized politics don't give up power easily — no matter the law, no matter what the voters say. So now a number of termed-out reps are going to court: Ernie Chambers, Marian L. Price, and Dennis Byars. As if to prove beyond any doubt the need for term limits, these senior solons are suing to overturn yet another vote of the people that they are supposed to be serving.

And what a strange suit they've brought. Much of it hinges on the interpretation of one clause in the term limit law. They interpret it in a new and exciting way, a way that would force Senators out earlier than anyone would have expected. They are not arguing that their interpretation of the law should be enforced, however. They are arguing that the law should be thrown out "as a mess."

The fact that no one else has ever interpreted the wording in the way they insist it reads suggests that, just perhaps, they are willing to grab at anything, anything to tear down the term limits they don't like. The Secretary of State, for instance, never considered anything other than the common sense reading of the law.

Amusingly, their own suit is itself a mess, bringing up idiotic and irrelevant subjects like the state's "unique unicameral legislature."

The whole thing should be filed in the "what were they thinking?" file. You know, the round tubular file on the floor by the desk.

State rep Dennis Byars has so far got the most attention. To gain grounds for the suit, he threw his hat in the ring. The Secretary of State threw it right back at him. He metaphorically crumpled his hat under his arm and went to the courthouse.

"What this is about is the Constitution," Byars informs us. "It's not about me."

Considering his goofy lawsuit, and its place in a long history of beating down the majority of Nebraskans who sincerely want and have repeatedly demanded term limits, he should have said, "What this is about is my eternal incumbency. It's not about my constituents!"

His public pronouncements do make clear the federal nature of his case. "Nebraska's term limits are unconstitutional because they violate the First and 14th Amendments of the United States Constitution. Term limits take away my rights to run for re-election and my constituents' rights."

But these politicians have not filed a lawsuit in federal court. Instead, they have asked the Nebraska Supreme Court — the same court that has twice issued contorted legal analyses to strike down voter-enacted limits — to expedite their convoluted case and trash the term limits law yet again.

This suit brings First and Fourteenth Amendment arguments that have been litigated countless times, always with same result: term limits do not violate the freedom of speech of candidates or voters, nor do they violate equal protection, as they affect everyone equally.

There is no absolute right to run for office. There are numerous other limits — such as age, residence, citizenship, etc. In some states, petition signatures are required to gain a place on the ballot.

One would think lawyers and politicians who write laws would already know this. And they do. But this lawsuit is not about the law; it is about lawlessness. It is yet another attempt to use political power to thwart the people's law to benefit the faction comprised of lobbyists, professional politicians, and insiders.

We've come a long way from George Washington, who didn't need a law to require him to hand power back to the people. His example created a tradition of a two-term limit on the president that, when broken by FDR, culminated in the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.

It's long past time to extend that heritage to all legislatures in all states as well as those infamous two in Washington, D.C.

But the country is filled with politicians very unlike Washington, more like Byars and his fellow hacks. Politicians who will say anything, do anything — including even suing the people — in order to keep their strangle hold on power.

We have no alternative but to keep vigilant, and — repeatedly, if necessary — put them in their place.