U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779; 115 S. Ct. 1842; 131 L. Ed. 2d 881 (1995)

U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779; 115 S. Ct. 1842; 131 L. Ed. 2d 881 (1995)

Facts—The Arkansas state constitution prohibited the names of otherwise eligible candidates from appearing on ballots for Congress if such individuals had served two previous terms in the U.S. Senate or three in the U.S. House. The Arkansas trial court and the state supreme court ruled that this restriction violated the qualifications clauses for members of Congress in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

Question—Does a state requirement barring the names of congressional candidates who have served a designated number of terms from appearing on ballots for Congress violate Article I of the U.S. Constitution?


ReasonsJ. Stevens (5–4) argued that the qualifications for members out- lined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution were designed to be exclusive, and it was irrelevant that Arkansas phrased its restriction as a “ballot access restriction rather than as an outright disqualification.” Stevens relied strongly on Powell v. McCormack (1969), and the history that supported it. In that case, which invalidated a congressional attempt to exclude a duly elected member who met specified age, citizenship and residency requirements, the Court ruled that such qualifications were exclusive. Stevens further denied that the power to add to such qualifications was reserved to the states by the Tenth Amendment. He argued both that such a power was not within the original powers of the states to reserve and that the qualifications set forth in the Constitution were designed to be exclusive, thus divesting states of any such powers they might have possessed. The Framers intended to adopt a “uniform national system” of congressional qualifications and specified that the federal government would provide the salaries of such representatives. Debates over the Constitution and its subsequent ratification evinced no intention that the Framers intended for the states to add to constitutionally specified qualifications. The debates did evince the “egalitarian ideal—that election to the National Legislature should be open to all people of merit.” Moreover, “the right to choose representatives belongs not to the States, but to the people.” There is no evidence that states attempted to impose limits in early American history, and the Arkansas regulations cannot be considered part of a state’s power to regulate the “Times, Places and Manner of Hold- ing Elections,” since they relate to substance rather than mere procedures. If people want to limit the terms of members of Congress, they must do so through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

J. Kennedy’s concurrence noted that the Framers attempted to “split the atom of sovereignty.” The right to select representatives is a right guaranteed by the federal Constitution and not a state right.

J. Thomas’s dissent started with an evocation of “first principles,” most notably the idea that, according to the Tenth Amendment, states had reserved those powers not delegated to the national government. The notion of popular sovereignty undergirding the Constitution tracks rather than erases state boundaries. Powers were reserved not simply by the states, but by the people, and “unless the Federal Constitution affirmatively prohibits an action by the States or the people, it raises no bar to such action.” The qualifications clauses were intended to set “minimum eligibility requirements” for members of Congress, not to preclude additional state qualifications. Indeed, prior to the Seventeenth Amendment, state legislatures selected U.S. senators. “The fact that the Framers did not grant a qualification-setting power to Congress does not imply that they wanted to bar its exercise at the state level.” Evidence from the Constitutional Convention and the ratification debates does not show that the Framers opposed the imposition of additional state qualifications but only that they were silent on the subject. Early practice shows that some states actually implemented additional qualifications, albeit not those at issue in this case. States can rightfully take notice of high election rates among incumbents and do something about them.

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