Term-Limit Law Turns Into Legal Drama

The Founding Fathers are invoked by both sides in a Seattle courtroom battle over state's right to shorten political careers

WHAT would Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton be thinking now?

The question arose Tuesday as a Seattle courtroom rang with arguments about whether a state can impose limits on legislative careers. Framers of the Constitution were summoned for cameo appearances on behalf of both sides in this legal drama.

It is a battle over ideas, but it is also about political power. Grass-roots groups across the country have been gaining momentum in an effort to wrest power from politicians they view as entrenched and unresponsive and put it back in the people's hands.

Just over a year ago, 14 states voted to limit the number of years their legislators can serve, with most measures passing by overwhelming margins.

In 1990, Colorado was the first state to pass such a measure. Proponents are targeting eight more state ballots this year. Almost one-fifth of the House of Representatives has served as long or longer than new home-state laws will allow.

But foes say term limits are unconstitutional, and at least one case - perhaps this one - will likely land on the docket of the United States Supreme Court. Rulings in Nebraska and Arkansas are currently being appealed.

Most prominent among the plaintiffs here is House Speaker Tom Foley (D), a House member since 1964.

Initiative 573, which limits consecutive House service to six years and consecutive Senate service to 12 years, would not technically affect Mr. Foley until the 1998 election, since it is not retroactive. Even then, Foley could run for reelection and win as a write-in candidate, since the measure is officially about being listed on the state ballot. He would also remain eligible for other political offices and to run for his old post after six years.

Lawyers for Foley argued that 573 should be struck down because it adds qualifications for lawmakers beyond the three specified in the Constitution: a minimum age, residence in the state where the office is sought, and American citizenship. Attorney Stephen Smith said James Madison, considered the ``father of the Constitution,'' wanted those qualifications to be ``exclusive and unalterable.''

Attorney Glen Thorsted quoted Alexander Hamilton, who in the Federalist Papers argued in favor of long-serving politicians who will become ``thoroughly masters of the public business.''

``What we just listened to here was the political class trying to protect its turf,'' says Sherry Bockwinkel, who heads LIMIT, a Tacoma, Wash., organization that spearheaded 573. The measure passed with a 52 percent majority, much slimmer than the 2-to-1 margin averaged in other states.

Putting power in the people's hands has been a growing movement in this century, Ms. Bockwinkel notes. ``States began doing it on their own'' with direct election of senators (previously chosen by other lawmakers). Later, in the wake of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's election to four terms as president, the Constitution was amended to limit the president to two four-year terms.

Foley and his allies argue that such an amendment is the only way to enact legislative term limits. This step is unlikely at present, since it would have to be approved by Congress itself.

Attorneys supporting Initiative 573 made a states-rights defense, arguing that the Constitution's qualifications for office are not meant to bar states from adding their own criteria.

Former US Attorney General Griffin Bell, representing LIMIT, pointed to the 10th Amendment, which leaves to the states or the people all powers not specifically granted to the federal government.

John Kester, representing the national group US Term Limits, noted that in the two years after the Constitution was ratified, states passed ``all sorts of extra qualifications,'' ranging from more-stringent residency requirements to nominating procedures to required property ownership (in Virginia).

Opponents held firm that term limits discriminated against a class of otherwise qualified people. ``If you can't discriminate against convicted felons'' running for office, lawyer Lloyd Cutler said, then the same should hold for ``what I think you'll agree is the lesser offense of having won three consecutive elections.''

William Dwyer, the US District Court judge hearing the case, is expected to rule in about a month.

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