In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the American political scene was swept by a growing anti-incumbent fervor. Individually, incumbents at both the state and national level continued to win reelection in overwhelming numbers, but reformers sought to address the discontent by seeking legislation and constitutional amendments, usually through statewide referenda, that sought to impose strict term limits on office holders at both the state and congressional levels.
Between 1990 and 1994, more than twenty states, including Arkansas, chose to impose limits on the length of time their representatives could serve in both the state legislature and in Congress. In a November 1992 referendum, the Arkansas electorate approved a measure that became Amendment 73 to the state constitution, which imposed definitive limits on the length of time that officials could hold elective office. Approved by almost sixty percent of the voters, the amendment limited executive officers and state senators to two four-year terms, while the limit for state representatives was three two-year terms. In addition, the amendment called for limits on the state’s congressional representatives. Specifically, House members would be limited to three two-year terms, while senators could serve two six-year terms.
The limits were quickly challenged in court, with opponents arguing that the new law represented an unconstitutional addition to the eligibility requirements for office that the state constitution had outlined. Both the trial court and the Arkansas Supreme Court found the limits on congressional service invalid, though they upheld the amendment’s application to state officials. In November 1994, the case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. In the spring of 1995, in the case U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton (514 U.S. 779), the U.S. Supreme Court, upholding the findings of the Arkansas Supreme Court, split the difference, confirming the state’s power to limit the tenure of state office holders, while at the same time striking down the restrictions for members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Writing for a majority in the 5–4 ruling, Justice John Paul Stevens declared that the U.S. Constitution established the qualifications for congressional service and that the Founding Fathers had at no time intended to allow the states to modify those standards. Echoing Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 15, Stevens declared that “the right to choose representatives belongs not to the states but to the people.”
While the Supreme Court’s ruling ended, at least temporarily, the debate over term limits at the national level, it had no effect on the limits imposed at the state level, and their impact on the legislature remained a central part of political discussions in Arkansas. By its very nature, the newly enacted law led to a wholesale reshuffling of the legislature. Indeed, Arkansas had chosen to approach the issues from a ballot-access direction, with the amendment imposing the required restrictions on service by limiting access to the ballot. Consequently, under the provisions of Amendment 73—which declared that individuals who had served the maximum number of terms allowed for that office were not eligible to be listed on the ballot—dozens of veteran legislators, some of whom had decades of experience, were forced onto the electoral sidelines, opening the door to a whole new generation of political office holders.
The new limits did not immediately take effect, for the clock began to run on the length of service only after the measure had been enacted. However, beginning with the 1998 election, the law began to reshape the legislative landscape. Indeed, that year, as a result of Amendment 73, over half of the 100 seats in the Arkansas House of Representatives were open, stripped of any incumbents seeking reelection. Two years later, just under a one-third of the thirty-five seats in the Senate were similarly wide-open contests.
Advocates of the term limits said that this was exactly what they had hoped for, as each body was transformed from a place led, if not dominated, by experienced, longtime veterans into a place populated by citizen legislators who brought new ideas and real-world experience to the legislative process. Opponents were not so sanguine about the make-up of the reconfigured legislature, arguing that the legislature was lacking important institutional memory, and they predicted that the influx of inexperienced amateurs would result in a political “Animal House,” a body unable to respond effectively to an ever more powerful executive. While the governor was also limited to two terms in that office, the full-time nature of the office, coupled with the substantial support staff, offered the state’s chief executive a clear advantage over an inexperienced legislative branch.
Opponents of the term limits undertook a concerted effort to roll back the Amendment 73 limits, bringing a 2004 referendum that would have weakened the law by allowing up to six two-year terms in the Arkansas House and three four-year terms in the Senate; it was soundly defeated by the state’s voters. However, that did not deter the opponents, who continued to seek revisions. Those efforts were finally rewarded in 2014. That year, after a fierce campaign, Arkansas voters approved a supposed ethics measure. What would become Amendment 94 included a revision of the original Amendment 73 limits, increasing to sixteen the total number of years an individual was allowed to serve in the Arkansas legislature.
The narrow 52.4–47.6 percent margin by which the change was approved reflected the continuing divisions that characterized discussion about the issue, but the change did represent a substantive increase over the original limitations. The change raised the question of whether the “clock” restarted on the number of years those in office at the time of the extension could serve, but state attorney general Dustin McDaniel determined that it did not, saying that the change addressed only the number of years an officeholder could serve and not when those years occurred.
An effort to create stricter term limits by referendum initially made it on the ballot in 2018. However, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce challenged the proposal, and just a few weeks before the election, the Arkansas Supreme Court invalidated thousands of signatures, rendering the ballot initiative moot.
The limits on elective governmental service have been in existence in Arkansas for almost two decades, but the issue is not settled, as advocates of both greater and lesser limits continue to push their points of view. Meanwhile, the state government continues to operate with an ever wider and ever changing cast of characters, one that in the end makes for a system that is undoubtedly more democratic, though its efficiency and effectiveness may have suffered.
For additional information:
Biskupic, Joan. “Congressional Term Limits Struck Down.” Washington Post, May 23, 1995. Online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/termlimits/stories/052395.htm (accessed October 15, 2020).
Day, Chad. “Pay Issue Gets Solid Backing by Voters.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 5, 2014, pp. 1A, 7A.
Dumas, Ernest. “Lobbyists Shocker: Ethics Law Passage.” Arkansas Times, November 13, 2014, p. 7.
Kousser, Thad. Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Romano, Lois. “Term Limits Give Neophytes Legs to Run.” Washington Post, May 28, 1998, p. 1A. Online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/termlimits/stories/term052898.htm (accessed October 15, 2020).
William H. Pruden III
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