U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton

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In U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995), a 5–4 U.S. Supreme Court held that term limits on Arkansas congressmen were unconstitutional because they added a condition to eligibility not found in the Qualifications Clauses. In other words, the Court held that the Qualifications Clauses are exclusive.

The replacement of the swing vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy by the more conservative Brett Kavanaugh makes it possible to overturn this bad precedent once Kavanaugh is confirmed and a case is brought before the Supreme Court on this issue.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion for the Court, joined by Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Justice Stevens held that:

Allowing individual States to adopt their own qualifications for congressional service would be inconsistent with the Framers' vision of a uniform National Legislature representing the people of the United States. If the qualifications set forth in the text of the Constitution are to be changed, that text must be amended.

Justice Anthony Kennedy provided the pivotal fifth vote in a concurrence that emphasized federalism. He wrote:

There can be no doubt, if we are to respect the republican origins of the Nation and preserve its federal character, that there exists a federal right of citizenship, a relationship between the people of the Nation and their National Government, with which the States may not interfere. Because the Arkansas enactment intrudes upon this federal domain, it exceeds the boundaries of the Constitution.

The conservative wing of the court dissented, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing a dissent joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Antonin Scalia. Justice Thomas's dissent ended with this statement:

[T]oday's decision reads the Qualifications Clauses to impose substantial implicit prohibitions on the States and the people of the States. I would not draw such an expansive negative inference from the fact that the Constitution requires Members of Congress to be a certain age, to be inhabitants of the States that they represent, and to have been United States citizens for a specified period. Rather, I would read the Qualifications Clauses to do no more than what they say. I respectfully dissent.

Justice Thomas also observed that at the time shortly after the founding our nation:

The advantages of incumbency were substantially fewer then than now, and turnover in office was naturally quite high. The perceived advantages of term limits were therefore smaller than they are today. But the perceived disadvantages were just as great: Term limits prevented the States or the people of the States from keeping good legislators in office, even if they wanted to do so. See G. Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, p. 439 (1969).

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