Term Limits Tossed Out -- State Supreme Court Says Voter-Approved Law Unconstitutional

OLYMPIA - The Washington State Supreme Court today threw out the voter-approved term-limits law that would have kept at least 29 incumbent legislators from appearing on this year's ballot.

The court, voting 6-2, ruled that the 1992 law is unconstitutional.

"I'm pleased. I'd rather leave on my own terms or have the constituents of my district tell me to leave," said Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, the longest-serving House member - she was first elected in 1972 - and one of several lawmakers who joined the lawsuit challenging the law.

House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee, said this morning he will recommend the Legislature put a constitutional amendment for term limits on the November ballot. He said it would include a 12-year limit in office, saying the voter-approved restrictions of six or eight years, depending on the office, were too short.

Ballard conceded there may not be enough support in the Legislature for the two-thirds vote needed to put the constitutional question to the people.

"I just think it's important that we have the debate," Ballard said.

The court said the term-limits proposal, Initiative 573, changed the qualifications for office, something that could only be done through a constitutional amendment.

"The wisdom of term limits is ultimately a policy decision for the voters of this state, through the process for constitutional amendment, . . ." the majority wrote.

"Whether this Court thinks such choice wise, or results in the best or most effective state constitutional officers, is of no consequence.

"With or without Initiative 573, the people retain the ultimate power to limit election of incumbents: by the reasoned and determined exercise of their franchise, they may in their discretion evict incumbents from office at the next election."

The initiative limited House members to three 2-year terms and senators to two 4-year terms, or 14 consecutive years in either chamber.

This is the first year the 1992 law would have affected lawmakers.

In the 2000 election, 17 senators and as many as 30 House members would have been barred from the ballot. (The fate of two appointed representatives was unclear.)

The majority opinion was written by Justice Phil Talmadge, a former state senator, with Chief Justice Barbara Durham and justices James Dolliver, Richard Guy, Barbara Madsen and Charles Johnson.

Dissenting were justices Richard Sanders and Gerry Alexander, who wrote: "Today, six votes on this court are the undoing of the 1,119,985 votes that Washingtonians cast at the polls in favor of term limits."

Sanders and Alexander argued that the state constitution sets only minimum standards for office, not the maximum, and voters are free to add additional requirements.

Quoting the initiative, Sanders and Alexander said term limits help to prevent "the self-perpetuating monopoly of elective office by a dynastic ruling class."

The justices added, "Nor are term limits unduly oppressive upon the individual incumbents who are `limited out,' since it is a privilege to serve through an office of public trust, not a private right, which one can conceivably be denied by an unduly oppressive government."

The suit was filed by lawmakers, the ACLU, Common Cause and a group of voters, including former University of Washington President William Gerberding and Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, Jr.

ACLU lobbyist Gerard Sheehan said his group organization, like the majority of the court, did not take a position on whether term limits were good or bad.

"It was an important question for Washington government," Sheehan said. "In no way was it done the correct way set forth in the constitution."

The suit was defended by Attorney General Christine Gregoire, representing Secretary of State Ralph Munro.

Munro said this morning he was glad the court acted before the 1998 legislative session begins Monday.

He said he did not yet know if the state would appeal the decision.

Two groups that promoted the term-limits initiative joined the suit to defend the law.

"This decision doesn't relieve the need for reform," said Shawn Newman, chairman of Citizens for Leaders with Ethics Now, or CLEAN, a successor group to the one that sponsored the initiative.

"A lot of people criticize term limits for being a meat-ax approach to political and election reform. But you look at the other efforts, like campaign-finance reform, and they can't cure themselves.

"The whole theory of term limits was (that) we are supposed to have a citizen Legislature, not a bureaucratic, professional Legislature."

David Postman's phone message number is 360-943-9882. His e-mail address is: dpos-new@seatimes.com