Term Limits: The Walking, Talking Dead Constitutional Amendment

Aug 24, 2014

Bruce Rauner, the Republican nominee for governor, tried to put public pressure on the Illinois Supreme Court to hear the term limits case; it didn't work. The Court issued a brief memo on Friday saying simply that it would not hear Rauner's appeal of a lower court ruling that found the question unconstitutional.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

You may know by now that a question regarding term limits has been knocked off the ballot by the courts, but do you know why? Regardless of the court rulings, don't expect the issue to go away.

Republican nominee for governor Bruce Rauner and his attorneys say they tried to write a proposal that could pass constitutional muster.

"I am very well aware of all of the legal requirements that the Illinois Supreme Court has passed down over the years, I've been involved in a number of these lawsuits," Steve Merica, the question's primary author, said at a press conference days before the Illinois Supreme Court said it would not hear the case, allowing an appellate court decision to stand.

But critics say its chances were doomed from the start, if you read an Illinois Supreme Court ruling from the '90s, when it was Gov. Pat Quinn who was trying for term limits.

Both Rauner and Quinn's plans have the same, fatal flaw, that can be traced back to 1970, when the current state constitution was adopted. Its drafters set very careful limits for what citizens could do to amend the constitution. Citizen's initiatives - which require thousands of voter signatures to gain a spot on the ballot - can only ask for structural or procedural changes to the General Assembly.

Illinois courts have found that term limits don't -- can't -- do that; term limits instead change qualifications for the eligibility for office.

That doesn't mean that Illinois can never limit how long politicians can serve. It would just require the General Assembly to do it.

Don't look for a ground swell of legislators to support a law limiting their own careers anytime soon, though Rauner says that's his eventual goal.

While the term limits question is dead legally, it's more like a zombie: sure to be kept alive by Rauner on the trail as he campaigns for governor, who has promised "we will never give up this battle."

"I will work tirelessly for candidates for the General Assembly who support term limits ... and I will help them win office," he says."We need to support elected officials, candidates for the General Assembly, who will run on, campaign on, and commit to term-limiting themselves, to eight years in office. If we do that one way or another, over time, we'll get term limits in place."

Term limits are just as good an issue for Rauner dead as alive; the rulings play right into his campaign narrative. It's the subject of a new ad he's running. And immediately after it became clear the question would be left off the ballot, Rauner wrote an email to supports about kicking career politicians out of office.

That same email came with a request for donations.

Gov. Quinn's campaign says it's Rauner who isn't putting his money where his mouth is; pointing out that over the years, Rauner donated to lawmakers who've put in more than the eight year limit he's seeking for members of Illinois' General Assembly.