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Michigan term limits face court challenge from former lawmakers

michigan capitol
Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, is proposing a bill claiming that “biological female are losing opportunities” because of transgender students. Critics say that’s nonsense. (Bridge file photo)

LANSING –  As unpopular among policymakers as they are popular in the public, Michigan’s term limits will now face a challenge in court.

A bipartisan group of former legislators on Wednesday announced plans to file a federal lawsuit against the state, seeking to end term limits on Michigan legislators. The term limits are the strictest in the nation.

The lawsuit comes as those close to the legislative process have also voiced long-standing frustrations with the 1992 reform. Many in Lansing view term limits as a barrier to the institutional knowledge necessary to reach tough compromises and focus on long-term policy priorities.  

Michigan term limits, approved by 60 percent of voters in 1992, remain popular among state residents, according to polls

Among the plaintiffs are former Republican legislators Roger Kahn of Saginaw Township, Joseph Haveman of Holland and Paul Opsommer of DeWitt, and former Democratic legislators Scott Dianda of Calumet, Clark Harder of Owosso, David Nathan of Detroit, Doug Spade of Adrian and Mary Valentine of Muskegon County. All except Valentine can’t run for state office anymore because of existing term limits. 

The group argues that Michigan’s legislative term limits — which restrict lawmakers to eight years in the Senate and six in the House — unconstitutionally bar qualified candidates from running for office and denies voters the right to select who they want to represent them. 

They also argue that term limits have increased lobbyists’ power and contributed to more polarization. Term limits were supposed to end political dynasties, but families often pass legislative seats to each other, the group said.  

“In 2016 alone, 13 races involved a spouse, sibling, or other relative of a current candidate — and that was in addition to the 16 other seats already held by a former incumbent’s family member,” the group said in a statement. 

The suit is supported by Michiganders for Good Government, a nonprofit formed by Republican consultant Rusty Merchant in 2018 to “promote the social welfare by educating the public about the harmful effects that term limits has had on Michigan, its businesses, and its citizens.” The group would not say who is funding the lawsuit.

John Bursch, former state solicitor general and lead attorney in the lawsuit, said that through more than a quarter century of experience with term limits, “we have learned this is not been good for government or the people.”

Three former legislators who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit echoed that view, saying that Michigan’s strict term limits mean that by the time a legislator knows how to navigate government, they are banned from running for office again.

“Ask any legislator and they’ll say they get more done in their (last) term than in any other,” said Opsommer at a press event announcing the suit on Wednesday.

Kahn said "term limits have done considerable damage to the state, and to voters who might want to vote for someone with experience." 

The lawsuit follows recently talk in Lansing that some reforms are needed. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said in May — during a panel in which both Democratic and Republican leaders said the limits weren’t working — that he may plan to launch a ballot initiative to change term limits. 

Last month, he and House Speaker Lee Chatfield met with Voters Not Politicians, the citizen group behind the successful ballot initiative to create an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, to discuss a possible collaboration on the subject, among other “good government” reforms.

Fifteen states have legislative term limits, but some have changed their minds — or been struck down in the courts — since the early 1990s. The Idaho and Utah state legislatures repealed their term limits in the early 2000s, and state Supreme Courts overturned term limits in Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. Term limits for the U.S. Congress were struck down in 1995

Proponents of term limits promised they would improve accountability, including making government more accessible to female politicians and politicians of color, reduce lobbyists influence on policy-making and making elections more competitive. A 2018 report by the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan found that the policy has largely failed to achieve many of those goals and has instead made some of those problems worse.

The limits have made many legislators see their time in office “as a stepping stone to another office,” the report read. “For this reason, officials spend more time on activities that can be viewed as electioneering.” 

Term limits have succeeded in creating more open-seat elections, the report said, but has also “reduced the experience and knowledge of legislators, weakening the legislature and making it less effective.”

But fans of term limits said they work just fine and point to the U.S. Congress –  which has none – as an example that career lawmakers are just as partisan, if not more so, than those with truncated terms.

Patrick Anderson, who helped author the 1992 term limits constitutional amendment, told Bridge Magazine last month that Michigan has a far more diverse government since the reforsms passed, electing for the first time women governors, attorneys general and secretaries of state.

“One of the reasons we wanted to have term limits in Michigan was to open the door for people who traditionally had a very difficult time getting a shot at running in an open seat," he said. “And on this one criteria, term limits has been a smashing success. We clearly opened a door."

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