Taking term limits to court

Florida's high court decides whether to strike down state law limiting

Florida lawmakers are preparing to enter a political whirlwind this summer as the state's highest court decides whether to uphold or strike down a 1992 term-limits law.

It is a constitutional confrontation being closely watched across the United States. And it is a battle that could mark the emergence of a new political dynamic in Florida in which the power of incumbency is effectively neutralized - perhaps for the first time since Reconstruction.

What happens next is unclear. But analysts say it will be anything but dull.

"There will be political turmoil in Florida," says Robert Boyd, a Tallahassee lawyer who argued the case against term limits before the state's Supreme Court in June.

If the law is upheld, it will spark vigorous competition among outgoing state representatives who may try for the fewer senate seats. It is also expected to draw unprecedented numbers of newcomers into state government - candidates who otherwise couldn't compete against entrenched incumbents.

If the law is struck down, the decision would provide a new legal approach for incumbents in other states to try to overturn their term limits. But it could also unleash an angry backlash among the 77 percent of Florida voters who supported term limits in a 1992 referendum.

"I think term limits is going to make a change from night to day in the political system in Florida, where voters can go to the polls and really have choices," says Paul Jacob, national director of United States Term Limits in Washington.

Florida is one of 18 states that have enacted term limits at the state legislative level.

The Florida term-limits law bars candidates from seeking reelection to any office they have held for eight years.

But now with the deadline approaching for eight-year incumbents to step down in 2000, opponents have asked the Florida Supreme Court to strike down the law because they say voters may have been confused about the term-limits ballot initiative.

Observers say a decision could come as early as today. At stake are nearly half of the seats in the House of Representatives and more than a quarter of the Senate seats.

The prospect of so many incumbent politicians losing their jobs at once has set the stage for heavy competition among many of the soon-to-be 54 ousted state representatives. Some are seeking to move up to one of 11 state senate seats that must be vacated by current eight-year officeholders.

Other longtime politicians are seeking to bypass term limits in a more direct way.

W.D. Childers of Pensacola (R), a state senator for nearly 30 years, said he intends to exploit a loophole in the rules by winning reelection as a write-in candidate. The term-limits law specifically prohibits eight-year incumbents from having their names listed on the ballot. But it says nothing about waging a write-in campaign.

Term-limits supporters say it is time for incumbents to get out of the way. "What we want are new ideas, fresh ideas, and for the citizens to have a level playing field when running for office [against incumbents]," says Max Linn, president of Florida Citizens for Term Limits.

Mr. Linn, a St. Petersburg businessman, says for the court to overturn term limits would be a "slap in the face of democracy."

"What is at stake in Florida is an overall feeling that it is impossible to get the will of the people through to our elected officials," he says.

Mr. Boyd counters that in 1992 when Floridians voted to enact term limits, the main focus in the news was wrongdoing in Congress.

He told the Florida Supreme Court justices that voters enacted term limits that would apply to members of Congress as well as state officials, and that if voters had known at the time of the referendum that the limits would apply only to state officials, they might not have supported the measure.

Federal vs. state limits

Congressional term limits were struck down as unconstitutional in 1995 by the US Supreme Court.

That court ruled 5-to-4 that it would take nothing less than an amendment to the US Constitution to legally impose term limits on members of Congress. But the same court declined to strike down state-level term limits - like those enacted in Florida.

Term-limits opponents are asking the Florida Supreme Court to do what the US Supreme Court declined to do four years ago.

They want the state court to rule specifically that the law is invalid because congressional and state term limits were so closely related in the minds of voters that, if congressional limits must be struck down, so should state term limits.

"What it boils down to for me is what were the voters really voting for," says Boyd. "If we don't really know, I think the only fair thing is to put it back on the ballot."

Entrenched or experienced?

Many legal analysts believe that absent any proof of outright election fraud, the Florida Supreme Court has little option but to uphold the term limits. It would be extremely difficult for a majority of the court to justify overturning a citizen referendum approved by a 3-to-1 margin of voters, they say.

Term-limits opponents say the limits deprive Florida constituents of the continued service of particularly effective, experienced, and well-connected legislators by arbitrarily removing them from office.

Term-limits supporters counter that gifted lawmakers are free to run for higher office.

They say that regularly weeding out incumbents helps promote new thinking, helps attract new candidates, and helps prevent the development of entrenched power structures.

Mr. Jacob says the majority of the current Florida legislature ran unopposed for reelection.

"It begins to tell you about the complete lack of competition that exists there," he says. "We know in the marketplace that if there isn't any competition, the goods and services just don't have the same quality. It is the same in politics."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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