Michigan term limits face court challenge from former lawmakers

A group is arguing in a new lawsuit that Michigan’s strictest-in-the-nation legislative term limits are unconstitutional. (Shutterstock image)

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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Kevin Grand
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 11:31am

Let them try.

This already went through the courts and has been upheld.

This is nothing more than former politicians with no marketable skills attempting to remain relevant.

middle of the mit
Sun, 11/24/2019 - 12:43am

Is that why Mr our roads should go back to gravel Shirkey is willing to meet with a group that literally helped write the non partisan redistricting committee?

[[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.]]

I voted for term limits. And if the last legislature and what they did with OUR rainy day funds doesn't deter you, you must be a partisan and then those term limited Republicans can do whatever they please with OUR rainy day fund. Hopefully some day Democrats will be able to return the favor.

How will you feel about it then?

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 1:06pm

This group of lobbyists is suing because. . . Term limits "increased the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups"?
I don't buy it.
Term limits have been a success in Michigan.
Term limits are proven to increase voter turnout.
Term limits have resulted in Michigan have more contested state legislature seats than any other state in the country (100% contested most cycles).
Term limits don't empower lobbyists. Lobbyists hate term limits. These lobbyists are suing because it's expensive to buy a new legislator every 6 years and convince the legislators to vote against the interests of their constituents. Term limits break up relationships between legislators and lobbyists and make their job tougher.

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 5:28pm

Nothing so sweet as the government teat.

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 7:15pm

Ha! Ha! Term limits increase tendency for family dynasties!!!! These supposed dynasties lasting a dozen years with term limits vs. a century for the Dingells???? Are we kidding here?

Kevin Grand
Thu, 11/21/2019 - 7:37am

Ironically, the Dingells were supposed to have been broomed out of office and forced to get real jobs like everyone else decades ago as part of the wording of the Term Limit proposal (it originally covered BOTH state and federal officeholders).

Unfortunately people like the League of Women Voters (let THAT one sink in for a moment), couldn't stand the outcome of the Michigan Voters decision and filed suit to have it overturned.

The courts got creative and ruled that while it didn't apply towards federal positions, it did apply towards state offices.

John Q. Public
Wed, 11/20/2019 - 9:05pm

I'm generally averse to repeal, but willing to consider it if we get something in return.


--elimination of lame duck sessions
--part-time legislature; eighty sessions per legislative term
--speaker of the house and senate majority leaders elected by the people statewide
--limit on number of bills any legislator may introduce in a term
--all bills introduced are voted on; no "gatekeeping" by partisan majority leaders or committee chairs
--separate legislative bodies controlling the general fund and the school aid fund
--no legislative exemption for any law passed by the legislature

There's plenty more, but that's a start.

Fri, 11/22/2019 - 7:46am

Great idea! Lets get it started.
-Only a super-majority can overturn a local law.
-The people can overturn any law passed by the legislature. (Right now if they just attach even a pittance of dollars to any law the people are prevented from overturning it)
-Candidates will be listed randomly on ballots.

Sherry A Wells
Thu, 11/21/2019 - 9:19am

I wrote five editions of Michigan Law for Everyone, but stopped after 2002 because there were few significant changes--only ones to make it more difficult for citizens to deal with insurance companies and to sue doctors (a related issue). There seems to have been many more ballot proposals in recent years--as if we're having to do our legislator's jobs. I ascribe both of these to term limits. Dynasties? It is not unusual for someone to follow in the footsteps of a parent--whether politics, acting or a hardware store. It's what s/he is familiar with, knows even. If one is not doing the job, nothing keeps us from "throwing the bums out."

Michael Houseman
Thu, 11/21/2019 - 10:29am

The comment that these lawmakers are our leaders is a false claim. They are our representatives, not our leaders. We elect them to represent us within the state. We don't elect them to lead us. We are supposed to be a free people. The problem that arises when they are in office too long is they begin to think they are our leaders. The same should go in our national elections, because they seem to think they our leaders also. Term limits should be in place to let the representatives know they work for us.

John Q. Public
Thu, 11/21/2019 - 7:38pm

You're singing from my songbook, Michael. Whenever some wannabe comes knocking on my door in the autumn of even-numbered years bragging up his "leadership" bona fides, I tell them I don't care about that. What I want to know is, "Can you follow?" The media--Bridge included-- are the worst perpetrators of the myth as they continually refer to elected officials as "leaders."