Former lawmakers appeal case seeking to overturn term limits

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Ten former lawmakers have asked a federal appellate court to rule Michigan's term limits unconstitutional, appealing a lower court ruling that upheld the decades-old, voter-approved limitations. 

Approved by voters in 1992, Michigan's term limits are considered some of the strictest in the country. They limit state lawmakers to serving a total of 14 years across the two legislative chambers — three, two-year terms in the House and two, four-year terms in the Senate. 

In their appeal filed April 5, the lawmakers asked the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals panel to consider their case in light of U.S. Supreme Court precedent on candidates' right to ballot access. The argument, they said, is different from what was used in a failed 1998 case that sought to overturn term limits on the premise that voters had a right to vote for candidates of their choice. 

The 1998 case and the precedent it created was one of the main reasons the lawmakers' suit was dismissed in January.

If the appellate court were to overturn Michigan's term limit rules, it would not "prohibit Michigan from adopting any term-limits proposal going forward," the April appeal said. "Instead, such an injunction will open the door to a meaningful conversation about how term limits have — and have not — worked in Michigan, and the adoption of a valid term-limits regime, one that is more in line with what other states have adopted."

Patrick Anderson, an East Lansing economist who wrote the 1992 term limit constitutional amendment, called the appeal "pathetic" and encouraged lawmakers to start collecting signatures if they wanted to change the term limit law.

"Here come these legislators who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and want a judge to overturn it," Anderson said. "Where is the outrage at these legislators trying to overturn the 1992 election?

"If they want to change the Constitution, they can do it right way," he said. "Go get signatures.”

Ten Democratic and Republican former lawmakers filed the suit in 2019 arguing that term limits violate constitutional rights such as equal ballot access and freedom of association. 

They also argued the 1992 rules decreased institutional knowledge among lawmakers and increased the influence of lobbyists who had been working in state policy longer. The limits are a disincentive for lawmakers to develop long-term plans or working relationships across the aisle, the lawmakers argued. 

“The reality is, Michigan’s term limits have created a dangerous level of learning-on-the-job, highlighted by the pandemic,” former state Rep. Paul Opsommer said in a statement Friday. “As Michigan has struggled through the pandemic, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if the Legislature had stronger, longer term relationships with each other and with the governor.”

U.S. District Judge Janet Neff dismissed those arguments in January, ruling that they were "without merit" and citing the precedent set by the 1998 case.

"Plaintiffs offer no basis on which this Court may properly disregard the clear and binding precedent" in the 1998 case that also upheld Michigan's term limits, Neff wrote.  

At the time of Neff's ruling, Attorney General Dana Nessel, who represented Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in the suit, welcomed the decision and said any term limit changes should be approved by voters. 

“Michigan voters took action three decades ago to change our state constitution, and that amendment has now held up twice in a court of law,” Nessel said in a statement.

All but one of the lawmakers who filed the suit were barred from running again by term limits. The lawmakers include Opsommer, Mike Kowall, David E. Nathan, Roger Kahn, Joseph Haveman, Scott Dianda, Mary Valentine, Mark Meadows, Clark Harder and Douglas Spade.