BOSTON — THE United States Supreme Court will jump into the middle of a major national fray tomorrow, when it hears arguments in a case challenging the power of voters to limit congressional members' terms.
With popular support for term limits sweeping the country, the case is one of the most closely watched disputes on the high court's calendar this term.
Earlier this month, voters in six states and the District of Columbia approved ballot measures that are intended to toss out representatives or senators who have served a certain number of years on Capitol Hill. Fifteen other states already had passed laws that cap congressional terms. The imposed limits generally are two terms for US senators (12 years) and three to six terms for representatives (six to 12 years).
If the Supreme Court rules that such restrictions violate the US Constitution, the decision likely will spark efforts to adopt a constitutional amendment limiting congressional terms.
Some polls show that 80 percent of respondents favor term limits. But supporters are not waiting for the justices' ruling, which may not be issued until June. As part of their ``Contract With America,'' Republicans have vowed to put a term-limit amendment to a vote during their first 100 days of the next Congress, though some in the soon-to-be GOP majority have been less ironclad in their comments since the midterm elections.
If passed by two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress, a term-limit amendment to the Constitution would have to be approved by three-fourths of the state legislatures.
The nine justices will listen to lawyers' arguments in two consolidated cases that originated in Arkansas: U.S. Term Limits Inc. v. Thornton and Bryant v. Hill.
The cases were brought by opponents of term limits after 60 percent of Arkansas voters in 1992 approved a limits amendment to the state Constitution.
The measure provides that US representatives who have served three terms and US senators who have served two terms cannot have their names placed on the ballot for that office, although such incumbents could still be reelected through a write-in campaign.
This year the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the state amendment was unconstitutional under the federal charter, and backers of the measure appealed to the US Supreme Court.
In accepting the term-limit cases so quickly, the justices signaled their recognition of the issue's importance. Moreover, the justices have scheduled 90 minutes for arguments on the issue rather than the customary hour.
The opponents of term limits on members of Congress contend that such limits are impermissible under sections of the Constitution that establish the qualifications for US representatives and senators.
The qualifications are confined to age, citizenship, and residency requirements. Opponents insist that these qualifications are exclusive and that voters or state legislatures cannot add a qualification related to incumbency.
But many supporters of term limits such as Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits Inc., one of the named litigants in one of the Supreme Court cases, counter that the qualifications for lawmakers listed in the Constitution are not exclusive.
They maintain that citizens in a democracy have an inherent right to establish criteria for their elected representatives.
Furthermore, Mr. Jacob and others note, even if the listed qualifications are exclusive, the Constitution states that ``the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof....''
Jacob says the Arkansas measure, which he calls a ``ballot-access limit'' rather than a ``service limit,'' is a valid exercise of a state's power to fix the times, places, and manner of holding elections.
Opponents of term limits, however, say that such restrictions go far beyond ordinary times, places, and manner regulations.
Even though he expects to win the Supreme Court case, Jacob favors a constitutional amendment supporting term limits. ``We don't believe that an amendment is necessary,'' he says, ``but we would prefer to have term limits enshrined in the nation's basic document.''
Jacob is so confident that the political tides are surging toward a constitutional amendment that he says the Supreme Court cases are, in a way, irrelevant.
``The court's ruling will be important as a statement about federalism and citizens' relation to their government, but it won't affect the eventual enactment of a term-limits amendment,'' he says.
Asked if Republicans in Congress will lose their enthusiasm for term limits now that they are the majority party, Jacob says, ``Many of those Republicans ran on term limits and were elected in states where voters overwhelmingly approved term-limit measures. They won't commit political suicide by getting cold feet now.''
Ed Gillespie, policy and communications director for the House Republican Conference, concurs.
``The Republican majority in Congress are resolved to fulfill their Contract With America,'' Mr. Gillespie says.
``Unlike the other party, we pledge that there will be a fair and open debate on term limits and a prompt vote on a constitutional amendment.''