The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan last Wednesday ruled in favour of the Offices of the Secretary of State for Michigan and the Attorney General of Michigan in a lawsuit challenging the Michigan Constitution’s terms for limits provision that was adopted through an amendment made nearly thirty years ago.
In 1992, amendments were made to the Constitution of Michigan to impose lifetime limits on state legislators. Under the amendment, State Representatives were limited to three two-year terms, while State Senators were limited to two four-year terms. The amendment was adopted through a vote on 58.8 per cent in favour of the amendment. As a natural consequence of the amendment, in 2014, thirty-four lawmakers had to leave their respective offices, which included the Office of the Senate Majority Leader, the Office of the Senate Minority Leader, and the Office of the House Speaker. Similarly, in 2019, the term limit resulted in seventy per cent of the State Senators and more than twenty per cent State Representatives being barred from running for their respective offices. In late November 2019, a group composed of ten former State legislators from both the Democrat and Republican party filed a lawsuit challenging the Secretary of State for Michigan, Jocelyn Benson.
The plaintiffs were arguing that but for Michigan’s lifetime term limits, they would seek reelection and/or other experienced candidates based on their belief that reduced legislators experience and the consequent increase in power among lobbyists would adversely affect the Michigan government. Additionally, the plaintiff also claimed certain research illustrating that the term limit provision that was approved in 1992 was a “failed social experiment”. In an amended Complaint dated to December 2019, the plaintiffs made five claims against the 1992 amendment, namely, (I) Violation of the First and Fourth Amendments (Ballot Access); (II) Violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments (Freedom of Association); (III) Violation of the Guarantee Clause; (IV) Violation of the Mich. Const. 1963, Art (IV) § 24; and (V) Violation of Mich. Const. 1963, Art (XII) § 2.
In effect, the plaintiffs sought (1) a declaratory judgment that Mich. Const. 1963, art. (IV), § 54 violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and the Guarantee Clause, Art (IV), section 4 of the United States Constitution; (2) a declaratory judgment that Mich. Const. 1963, art. (IV), § 54 violates Mich. Const, art. (IV), § 24, and art. (XII), § 2; (3) a permanent injunction prohibiting the Michigan Secretary of State from enforcing Mich. Const. 1963 art. (IV), § 54; (4) plaintiffs’ reasonable costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees; and (5) any other relief the Court deems just and proper.
Secretary of State and Attorney General of Michigan’s Arguments
Regarding Count (I) and (II), Secretary Benson argued that the Michigan Constitution’s term limit provisions do not violate the plaintiffs’ rights under the federal constitution as was held by the Sixth Circuit almost twenty years ago in Citizens for Legislative Choice v. Miller. In that case, the Sixth Circuit made it clear that § 54 does not impose a severe burden because voters do not have a right to “vote for a specific candidate or even a particular class of candidates” but voters do “have many other avenues to express their preferences”.
Regarding Count (III), the Secretary of State argued that the plaintiffs have failed to offer legal authority showing that their claim was justiciable. The Secretary further argued that even in the advent an authority was produced before the court, the claim was without merit where “the people of Michigan continue to choose their state legislators subject to a constitutional limitation enacted by the people themselves”.
In response to Count (IV), the Secretary of State argued that there were no Michigan courts that have ever held that the Title-Object clause applies to amendments to the Michigan Constitution, whether proposed by the legislature or by the people through petition. Finally, in response to Count (V), the Secretary of State argued that the plaintiffs’ claim relating to Count (V) was without merit, if not frivolous since the ballot language does not refer to the savings clause.
U.S. District Court for Western District of Michigan’s Decision
Judge Janet Neff, in her 17-page judgment, rejected the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. Judge Janet, particularly, regarding Count (I) and (II) stated that the plaintiffs had not offered any basis upon which the Court may properly disregard the clear and binding precedent of the Miller case. Moreover, regarding Count (III), the court concluded that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that the federal Constitution’s guarantee of a republican form of government in Art (IV) provided without a basis for invalidating § 54. Similarly, in response to Count (IV), plaintiffs had not demonstrated that the Title-Object clause provided a basis for invalidating § 54. Finally, in response to Count (V), the court found in favour of the Secretary of State concluding that there was no merit for the claim. Based on these, the Court concluded that there was no violation of either the federal or state Constitutions because of the 1992 amendment on term limits in the Michigan Constitution.
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