Twenty years ago this month, the Supreme Court placed a huge roadblock in the way of a grass-roots, bipartisan movement that had been gaining strength, namely the term limits movement. In many states, voters had approved limits on the number of terms that state officials may serve. Back in the early 90s, there was similar pressure to limit the number of terms members of the U.S. House and Senate could serve.
And then, the Supreme Court said such limits were unconstitutional in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton. By a 5-4 vote, the justices held that putting term limits on members of Congress (as Arkansas had voted to do) amounted to an additional “qualification” for holding office, which no state could impose because the Constitution’s stated qualifications are exhaustive.
In my view, Justice Clarence Thomas grasped the crucial point, writing “Nothing in the Constitution deprives the people of each State of the power to prescribe eligibility requirements for the candidates who seek to represent them in Congress. The Constitution is simply silent on this question. And where the Constitution is silent, it raises no bar to action by the State or the people.”
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