Federal judge rejects former lawmakers' bid to overturn term limits

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A Grand Rapids federal district judge has rejected a plea from 10 former state lawmakers seeking to overturn Michigan's term limits put in place by voters nearly 30 years ago. 

U.S. District Judge Janet Neff dismissed the case Wednesday, ruling that Michigan's limitations do not violate the federal or state constitutions.

Attorney General Dana Nessel, who represented Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office as a defendant in the case, welcomed Neff's decision and noted that any changes to term limits should come from voters, if at all. 

“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, referencing a separate 1998 court opinion on term limits.

Attorney John Bursch speaks about a new lawsuit challenging Michigan's term limits on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, beside former lawmakers Roger Kahn (left) and Mary Valentine (right).

The latest lawsuit was filed in 2019 by 10 former lawmakers who had been restricted by term limits: Mike Kowall, Scott Dianda, Joseph Haveman, Clark Harder, Douglas Spade, Paul Opsommer, David Nathan, Roger Kahn, Mary Valentine and Mark Meadows. 

The lawmakers had argued the 1992 rules — which limit state representatives to three two-year terms and state senators to two four-year terms — decreased institutional knowledge among lawmakers and increased the influence of lobbyists who had been working in and around state policy longer. 

Term limits also resulted in 25% of term-limited lawmakers registering as lobbyists or working in a consulting position, roles that gave them insight and influence over their former colleagues on behalf of interest groups, opponents argued. 

The lawmakers argued the term limits should be banned in large part because they violate constitutional rights such as equal ballot access and freedom of association.  

"Plaintiffs argue that Michigan’s term limits, which are the shortest and harshest in the nation, are not narrowly tailored to prevent political careerism or the advantages of incumbency or to increase diverse representation," Neff's decision said. 

The judge said the arguments were "without merit."

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