On November 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected a constitutional challenge brought forward by a bipartisan group of Michigan state legislators arguing that their state’s term limits violate their constitutional rights.
Voters in 1992 approved a ballot measure to limit state representatives to serving just three terms and state senators to serving only two terms. The amendment made it so state representatives would be limited to six years in office, while state senators would be able to serve eight. The limits were challenged in 2019 when a federal First Amendment lawsuit against Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was filed by 10 bipartisan lawmakers determined to nullify the term limits.
They argued the restrictions prevented Michigan’s voters from choosing their preferred candidates, though the case was ultimately dismissed by U.S. District Judge Janet Neff, an appointee of George W. Bush, who cited past court decisions related to the same law and noted that the amendment is designed to curb political careerism and the influence special interest groups have on candidates and policy decisions.
The legislators appealed Neff’s decision and argued the case in October in front of a Sixth Circuit panel, which shot down their argument in an eight-page opinion authored by U.S. Circuit Judge Amul Thapar, who served on the appellate panel alongside U.S. Circuit Judge John Nalbandian, and U.S. Circuit Judge Ronald Gilman.
“At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin made the case for term limits,” Thapar began the opinion. “He argued that ‘in free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors and sovereigns. For the former therefore to return among the latter was not to degrade, but to promote them.’ The people of Michigan had the same idea. They enacted term limits for their state legislators. Yet some veteran legislators didn’t take their ‘promotion’ well. They sued, claiming term limits violate their constitutional rights.”
The state legislators argued that their case should be examined under the Anderson-Burdick framework commonly utilized in ballot-access cases, but Thapar dismissed their argument and instead stated rational basis and past rulings in similar cases were the foundation for the panel’s dismissal.
“In articulating the Anderson-Burdick framework, the Supreme Court held that it should be used by courts ‘considering a challenge to a state election law.’ But term limits are not state election laws,” Thapar wrote. “So what are they? Term limits are the state’s attempt to set qualifications for its officeholders . . . Courts routinely apply rational basis when officeholders’ qualifications are at stake. And that makes sense—none of these qualifications for office implicate a fundamental right. Indeed . . . The last time the Supreme Court was faced with a challenge like this one to state-office term limits, it summarily dismissed the case.”
Thapar was equally dismissive of the legislators’ claims that term limits are unconstitutional.
“Thus, we ask whether the limits are rationally related to a legitimate government interest. They are,” Thapar said. “Indeed, Michigan has several legitimate government interests in enacting term limits. First among them? Its sovereign interest in structuring its government as it sees fit. According to Michigan, term limits can also reduce political careerism and check special interests.”
The lawmakers acknowledged political careerism and special interests are legitimate government interests, but argued that there are less restrictive means of achieving turnover. Thapar countered that “Michigan’s term limits don’t need to be the least restrictive means possible.”
“They only need to be rationally related to their purported goal: electing a citizen legislature,” Thapar wrote. “And a lifetime ban on legislatures who have served two or three terms in the state Senate or House is indeed rationally related to that interest—it stops career legislators from keeping state office. So term limits pass rational-basis review.”
The legislators also challenged term limits as voters, arguing once again that their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights are reduced because they aren’t able to vote for experienced candidates. Thapar cited Citizens for Legislative Choice v. Miller, and noted that the Sixth Circuit upheld Michigan’s term limits.
“Just as candidates have no fundamental right to run for office, voters have no fundamental right to ‘vote for a specific candidate or even a particular class of candidates,’” Thapar wrote. “This is why the Miller court upheld these same term limits more than 20 years ago.”
Thapar’s conclusion reiterated it’s up to Michigan’s voters to organize its legislature.
“More than 20 years ago, the people of Michigan chose a citizen legislature, not a professional one,” he said. “Now, legislatures with years of experience seek to use the federal courts to get around their state’s sovereign choice. But it’s not our place to intervene on their behalf. If they want to change the law, they’ll have to do that at the ballot box.”