Can Congress Have Term Limits? | U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton

Mr. Beat is a social studies teacher who specializes in making history and geography more engaging

In episode 46 of Supreme Court Briefs, Arkansas tries to get rid of career politicians through indirect term limits. Yeah but is it legal? #supremecourtbriefs #apgov #termlimits

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November 3, 1992

Citizens vote to approve Amendment 73 to the Arkansas Constitution, which says any federal Congressional candidate who has already served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives or two terms in the U.S. Senate can’t be on the ballot in elections. Now, representatives could still run for a fourth term and Senators could still run for a third term- their names would just have to be written-in on the ballot. For people who can’t spell, though, this might be a problem.

Anyway, Bobbie Hill, a member representing the League of Women Voters, was not happy Amendment 73 passed. She sued Arkansas, arguing the amendment went against the United State Constitution, yo. Specifically, it’s Article 1, Section II: No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen But wait, there’s more. It’s Article 1, Section III: No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen . And of course Hill brought up the 17th Amendment as well.

Ray Thornton, a U.S. Congressman representing the 2nd district of Arkansas, was one of the folks who would not have his name on the ballot in the next election. He joined Hill and the League of Women Voters with another lawsuit. Representing Arkansas in the lawsuit by Hill was Attorney General Winston Bryant. Representing Arkansas in the lawsuit by Thornton was U.S. Term Limits, the organization who helped get Amendment 73 to pass to begin with.

The Arkansas Circuit Court sided with Thornton and Hill. On appeal, the Arkansas Supreme Court also ruled in favor of Thornton and Hill. U.S. Term Limits and Bryant appealed yet again to the Supreme Court, who agreed to hear both cases, hearing oral arguments on November 29, 1994.

U.S. Term Limits argued that Amendment 73 didn’t actually prevent anyone from running for an additional term- she or he could run as a write-in candidate. But Thornton and Hill argued this additional obstacle was enough to overstep Article 1, sections 2 and 3 of the U.S. Constitution. So, could states do that as indirect way to prevent career politicians being in government?

The Court said “no.” On May 22, 1995, they announced they had sided with Thornton and Hill. It was a close one. 5-4, and split based on political ideology. The more conservative justices sided with U.S. Term Limits. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion, using the 17th Amendment to back it up. “The Congress of the United not a confederation of nations in which separate sovereigns are represented by appointed delegates, but is instead a body composed of representatives of the people.”

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