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Sixth Circuit upholds strict term limits for Michigan lawmakers

Despite imposing a lifetime ban after just two terms, an appellate panel found Michigan's limits on state legislators’ time in office do not violate their First Amendment rights.

CINCINNATI (CN) — A bipartisan group of state legislators failed to convince the Sixth Circuit that Michigan's term limits violate their constitutional rights, as a three-judge panel unanimously ruled Wednesday that voters have a right to curb the length of their elected representatives' careers.

The Michigan Constitution was amended to include two-term limits for state legislators after a ballot measure was ratified by voters in 1992.

As a result of the amendment, state representatives may serve no more than six years in office, while state senators are eligible to serve eight years.

Although the limits have been challenged by voters and upheld in the past, 10 state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle filed a federal First Amendment lawsuit in 2019 against Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson seeking to invalidate the limits.

The legislators argued the restrictions prevent voters from being able to choose the candidate of their choice, but the case was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Janet Neff.

Neff, an appointee of George W. Bush, cited previous court decisions dealing with the same law, and emphasized the amendment is used to cut down on political careerism and lessen the influence of special interest groups.

The legislators appealed, and the case was argued less than a month ago before a Sixth Circuit panel.

Wednesday's brief, eight-page opinion was written by U.S. Circuit Judge Amul Thapar, who gave short shrift to the elected officials' arguments.

The Donald Trump appointee quoted Benjamin Franklin to open his opinion and reminded the lawmakers that courts are not in a position to second-guess how states organize their governments through elections.

“At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin made the case for term limits. He argued that ‘in free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors and sovereigns. For the former therefore to return among the latter was not to degrade, but to promote them.’ The people of Michigan had the same idea,” the ruling states. (Emphasis in original.)

Thapar rejected the legislators' argument their claims should be analyzed under the so-called Anderson-Burdick framework – which is typically used in ballot-access cases – and instead determined rational basis is the proper lens through which to review the case.

"Courts routinely apply rational basis when officeholders' qualifications are at stake," he said. "And that make sense -- none of [the] qualifications for office implicate a fundamental right. Indeed ... the last time the Supreme Court was faced with a challenge like this one to state-office term limits, it summarily dismissed the case."

Having established the proper analytical framework, Thapar quickly disposed of the lawmakers' constitutional claims.

"Thus, we ask whether the limits are rationally related to a legitimate government interest. They are. Indeed, Michigan has several legitimate government interests in enacting term limits," he wrote. "First among them? Its sovereign interest in structuring its government as it sees fit. According to Michigan, term limits can also reduce political careerism and check special interests."

The legislators argued Michigan must be less restrictive in the way it limits their political careers, but Thapar and the two other judges on the panel disagreed.

"Michigan's term limits don't need to be the least restrictive means possible," Thapar said. "They only need to be rationally related to their purported goal: electing a citizen legislature. And a lifetime ban on legislators who have served two or three terms in the state Senate or House is indeed rationally related to that interest -- it stops career legislators from keeping state office. So term limits pass rational-basis review."

The panel departed from Neff's decision in one regard, vacating her decision to grant summary judgment on several state law claims, which the Sixth Circuit judges determined should be handled at the state level because they "raise novel questions of state constitutional law."

Those claims will now be dismissed without prejudice.

Thapar reiterated in his conclusion that Michigan voters have a right to organize their legislature as they see fit, regardless of whether the officials they elect like it.

"More than twenty years ago," he said, "the people of Michigan chose a citizen legislature, not a professional one. Now, legislators with years of experience seek to use the federal courts to get around their state's sovereign choice. But it's not our place to intervene on their behalf. If they want to change the law, they'll have to do that at the ballot box."

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Ronald Gilman, an appointee of Bill Clinton, and U.S. Circuit Judge John Nalbandian, another Trump appointee, also sat on the panel.

Neither party immediately responded to requests for comment.

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