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Term limits apply to many offices at both the federal and state level in the United States. In the U.S.marker term limits date back to the American Revolution.

Federal Limits
President of the United States Two 4-year terms (consecutive or non-consecutive) and up to 10 years in total including finishing up to 2 years of an unfinished terms
United States Senate Unlimited 6-year terms
US House of Representatives Unlimited 2-year terms
Supreme Court Lifetime appointment

Historical background

Term limits, or rotation in office, date back to the American Revolution, and prior to that to the democracies and republics of antiquity. The council of 500 in ancient Athensmarker rotated its entire membership annually, as did the ephorate in ancient Spartamarker. The ancient Roman Republic featured a system of elected magistrates—tribunes of the plebs, aediles, quaestors, praetors, and consuls—who served a single term of one year, with reelection to the same magistracy forbidden for ten years. (See Cursus honorum) Many of the founders of the United Statesmarker were educated in the classics, and quite familiar with rotation in office during antiquity. The debates of that day reveal a desire to study and profit from the object lessons offered by ancient democracy.

In 2 October 1789, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of thirteen to examine forms of government for the impending union of the states. Among the proposals was that from the State of Virginiamarker, written by Thomas Jefferson, urging a limitation of tenure, "to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress...." The committee made recommendations, which as regards congressional term-limits were incorporated unchanged into the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789]). The fifth Article stated that "no person shall be capable of being a delegate [to the continental congress] for more than three years in any term of six years."

In 1776, rotation experiments also took place at the state level. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 set maximum service in the Pennsylvania General Assembly at "four years in seven." Benjamin Franklin's influence is seen not only in that he chaired the constitutional convention which drafted the Pennsylvania constitution, but also because it included, virtually unchanged, Franklin's earlier proposals on executive rotation. Pennsylvania's plural executive was composed of twelve citizens elected for the term of three years, followed by a mandatory vacation of four years.

In contrast to the Articles of Confederation, the federal constitution convention at Philadelphiamarker omitted mandatory term-limits from the second national frame of government, i.e. the U.S. Constitution of 1787 to the present. Nonetheless, due largely to grass roots support for the principle of rotation, rapid turnover in Congress prevailed by extra-constitutional means. Also George Washington set the precedent for a two-term tradition that prevailed (with the exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's four terms) until the 22nd Amendment of 1951.

However, when the states ratified the Constitution (1787-88), several leading statesmen regarded the lack of mandatory limits to tenure as a dangerous defect, especially, they thought, as regards the Presidency and the Senate. Richard Henry Lee viewed the absence of legal limits to tenure, together with certain other features of the Constitution, as "most highly and dangerously oligarchic." Both Jefferson and George Mason advised limits on reelection to the Senate and to the Presidency, because said Mason, "nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation." The historian Mercy Otis Warren, warned that "there is no provision for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life; which by a little well timed bribery, will probably be done...."

The fact that "perpetuity in office" was not approached until the 20th century is due in part to the influence of rotation in office as a popular 19th century concept. "Ideas are, in truth, forces," and rotation in office enjoyed such normative support, especially at the local level, that it altered political reality. For a detailed study of the 19th century concepts of rotation let the reader consult Political Science Quarterly, vol. 94, "House Turnover and the Principle of Rotation," by Robert Struble, Jr. See also his Treatise on Twelve Lights, chapter six, "Rotation in History". Consult also, James Young's The Washington Community, 1800-1828.

According to Young, the tendency to look with mistrust upon political power was so ingrained into American culture that even the officeholders themselves perceived their occupations in a disparaging light. James Fennimore Cooper, the novelist, described the common view that "contact with the affairs of state is one of the most corrupting of the influences to which men are exposed." An article in the Richmond Enquirer (1822) noted that the "long cherished" principle of rotation in office had been impressed on the republican mind "by a kind of intuitive impulse, unassailable to argument or authority."

Beginning about the 1830s, Jacksonian democracy introduced a less idealistic twist to the practice of limiting terms. Rotation in office came to mean taking turns in the distribution of political prizes. Rotation of nominations to the U.S. House of Representatives – the prizes – became a key element of payoffs to the party faithful. The leading lights in the local party machinery came to regard a nomination for the House as "salary" for political services rendered. A new code of political ethics evolved, based on the proposition that "turnabout is fair play." In short, rotation of nominations was intertwined with the spoils system.

In district nominating conventions local leaders could negotiate and enforce agreements to pass the nominations around among themselves. Abraham Lincoln was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1846 under such a bargain, and he returned home to Springfieldmarker after a single congressional term because, he wrote, "to enter myself as a competitor of another, or to authorize anyone so to enter me, is what my word and honor forbid."

During the Civil War, the Confederate States constitution limited its president to a single six-year term.

The practice of nomination rotation for the House of Representatives began to decline after the Civil War. It took a generation or so before the direct primary system, civil service reforms, and the ethic of professionalism worked to eliminate rotation in office as a common political practice. By the turn of the 20th century the era of incumbency was coming into full swing.

A total of 8 presidents served two full terms and declined a third and three presidents served one full term and refused a second. After World War II, however, an officeholder class had developed to the point that congressional tenure rivaled that of the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker, where tenure is for life. Homesteading in Congress, made possible by reelection rates that approached 100% by the end of the 20th century, brought about a popular insurgency known as the term-limits movement?

Federal term limits

Reformers during the early 1990s used the initiative and referendum to put congressional term limits on the ballot in 23 states. Voters in every one of these states approved the congressional term limits by an average electoral margin of two to one.

In May 1995, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, that states cannot impose term limits upon their federal Representatives or Senators.

Earlier that Spring, the U.S. Congress had given the Court assurance that the Justices would be acting only against state statutes, not overturning an act of Congress. For the hopes of some that Congress would self-impose term limits had abruptly come to an end. Congressional term limits had been featured prominently in the Republican Party's Contract with America in the 1994 election campaign, and may well have contributed to the Republican Revolution, as the Republicans wrested control of the House of Representatives from the Democratic Party for the first time since the 1952 elections. The Republican leadership brought to the floor of the House a constitutional amendment that would limit House members to six two-year terms and members of the U.S. Senate to two six-year terms. However, this rate of rotation was so slow (the life-tenured Supreme Court averages in the vicinity of twelve years) that the congressional version of term-limits garnered little support among the populist backers of term limits, including U.S. Term Limits, the largest private organization pushing for Congressional term limits. (U.S. Term Limits wanted House members to be limited to three two-year terms.) With the Republicans holding 230 seats in the House, three versions of the amendment got well under 200 votes, while the 12 year term-limits which overrode all the more stringent state measures managed a bare majority in the House of 227-204, well short of the requisite two-thirds majority (290 votes) required to pass a constitutional amendment. Defeated in Congress and overridden by the Supreme Court, this populist uprising was brought to a halt for the purpose of reforming the federal government. The term limits intended simultaneously to reform legislatures (as distinguished from the congressional delegations) remain in force, however, in fifteen states.

Nearly half a century prior to the term limits movement of the 1990s, the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to a fourth consecutive term, and his sudden death a few months later, gave rise to a successful move in Congress to restore the two-term tradition in the Presidency. As ratified in 1951, the Twenty-Second Amendment states that "no person shall be elected to the office of President more than twice..."

President George Washington originally started the tradition of informal Presidential term limits by refusing to run for a third term. The short-lived Confederate States of America adopted a six-year term for their President and Vice-President, and barred the President from seeking re-election. This innovation was endorsed by many American politicians after the war, most notably by Rutherford B. Hayes in his inaugural address. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first and only American President to successfully break Washington's tradition, and he died in office while serving his fourth term (which he had barely started).

As of 2007, term limits at the federal level are restricted to the executive branch and some agencies. Judicial appointments at the federal level are made for life, and are not subject to election or term limits. The U.S. Congress remains (since the Thornton decision of 1995) without electoral limits.

In 2007, Professor Larry J. Sabato revived the debate over term limits by arguing in A More Perfect Constitution that the success and popularity of term limits at the state level suggests that they should be adopted at the federal level as well. He specifically put forth the idea of congressional term limits and suggested a national constitutional convention be used to accomplish the amendment, since the Congress would be unlikely to propose and adopt any amendment that limits its own power.

State term limits

Term limits for state officials have existed since colonial times. The Pennsylvania Charter of Liberties of 1682, and the colonial frame of government of the same year, both authored by William Penn, provided for triennial rotation of the provincial council -- the upper house of the colonial legislature. The Delaware Constitution of 1776 limited the governor to a single three-year term; currently, the governor of Delaware can serve two 4-year terms.

At present, 36 states have term limits of various types for their governors. To circumvent the term limit in Alabamamarker incumbent governor George Wallace pushed through the nomination of his wife Lurleen, in the Democratic primary which was, in those days, the real contest in Alabama. It was generally understood that Ms. Wallace would only be a titular governor while her husband continued to hold the real power. She won the election, but only served 17 months before dying in 1968.

As indicated above, in fifteen state legislatures the members serve in rotation, i.e., under term limits enacted during the reforms of the early 1990s. In another six states, however, state legislatures have either overturned their own limits or state supreme courts have ruled such limits unconstitutional. In 2002 the Idaho Legislature became the first legislature of its kind to repeal its own term limits, enacted by a public vote in 1994, ostensibly because it applied to local officials along with the legislature.

Gubernatorial term limits

[[File:US Governor Term Limits.svg|right|400px|thumb|United States Governor term limits as of 2009

]]Governors of 36 states and 4 territories are subject to various term limits, while the governors of 14 states, Puerto Rico, and the Mayor of Washington, D.C. may serve an unlimited number of times. Each state's gubernatorial term limits are prescribed by its state constitution, with the exception of Wyoming, whose limits are found in its statutes. Territorial term limits are prescribed by its constitution in the Northern Mariana Islands, the Organic Acts in Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and by statute in American Samoa.

Unique in its restriction, the Governor of Virginia is limited to one term, but is re-eligible after four years out of office.

The governors of the following states and territories are limited to two terms, but are re-eligible after four years out of office: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia,, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Equivalently, the Governors of Indiana and Oregon are limited to serving 8 out of any 12 years. Conversely, the Governors of Montana and Wyoming are restricted to two terms, limited to serving 8 out of any 16 years. Finally, the governors of the following states and territory are absolutely limited (for life) to two terms: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Governors of New Hampshire and Vermont may serve unlimited two year terms. The chief executives in the following states, district, and territory may serve unlimited four year terms: Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The Governor of Utah was formerly limited to serving three terms, but all term limit laws were later repealed by the legislature.

State legislatures with term limits

The following 15 legislatures have term limits:

Overturned or repealed state legislative term limits

The following six legislatures have had their term limits nullified:

Municipal term limits

Some local governments have term limits. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvaniamarker, the mayor cannot be elected three consecutive times, but there is no limit on how long any individual can serve as mayor. Frank Rizzo was elected mayor in 1971 and 1975; he attempted to repeal the term limit, but failed and could not run in 1979. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for mayor in 1983 but he lost to Wilson Goode. In 1986, he switched to the Republican Party, and ran as a Republican in the mayoral elections of 1987 and 1991.

A two-term limit was imposed on New York City Council members and citywide elected officials (except for district attorneys) in New York Citymarker after a 1993 referendum (see the Charter of the City of New York, §1138). On November 3, 2008, however, mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a bill extending the two-term limit to a three-term limit and has now been elected to an unprecedented third term (This change is currently under review in the courts and also by the US Department of Justice).

In Cincinnati, Ohiomarker, the term limit for mayor is two successive four-year terms. Council members are limited to four successive two-year terms. There is no limit to total terms that may be served, just a limit on successive terms.

See also


  1. Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian F. Boyd, et al., (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950-), 1:411.
  2. Also, article IX, paragraph 5, of the Articles of Confederation provided that, "no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years."
  3. Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, section 8.
  4. Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, section 19. On Franklin's plan of 1775 see, Benjamin Franklin, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, ed., Albert Henry Smyth, 10 vols. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1907), 6:423, article 9.
  5. R.H. Lee, Letter to Edmund Randolph dated 16 October 1787, in Richard Henry Lee, The Letters of Richard Henry Lee, ed. James C. Ballagh, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan Co., 1911), 2:450, 455. See also 1:191, letter to Edmund Pendleton dated 12 May 1776, and Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican, ed. Walter H. Bennett (University, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1978), pp. 72-75, 86.
  6. Jefferson, Papers, Boyd, ed., 12:440, 13:490. See also 15:25 for Jefferson's definition of rotation in office.
  7. Mason in Jonathan Eliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on Adoption of the Federal Constitution, 5 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1836), 3:485.
  8. Mercy Otis Warren, Observations on the new Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions 9, in Herbert J. Staring, ed., The Complete Anti-Federalist, 6 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) 4:270, 278.
  9. Robert Struble, Jr., " House Turnover and the Principle of Rotation," Political Science Quarterly 94 (Winter 1979-80): p. 650, and fn. 6. The quotation is from Henry James, the biographer.
  10. Robert Struble, Jr., Treatise on Twelve Lights, chapter six, Rotation in Office, and other democratic reforms..."
  11. James S. Young, The Washington Community, 1800-1828 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), pp. 51-52, 55-57, 59-61, 64, 145.
  12. James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), p. 52;
  13. Richmond Enquirer, 8 November 1822, p. 3; Struble, supra., p. 653.
  14. One can still detect the idealism of the Revolutionary period echoed by President Andrew Jackson in his address to Congress, December 8, 1829: "There are, perhaps, few men who can for any great length of time enjoy office and power without being more or less under the influence of feelings unfavorable to the faithful discharge of their public duties. Their integrity may be proof against improper considerations immediately addressed to themselves, but they are apt to acquire a habit of looking with indifference upon the public interests and of tolerating conduct from which an unpracticed man would revolt. Office is considered as a species of property, and government rather as a means of promoting individual interests than as an instrument created solely for the service of the people. Corruption in some and in others a perversion of correct feelings and principles divert government from its legitimate ends and make it an engine for the support of the few at the expense of the many."... [James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 10 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896-99), 2:448-49].
  15. Struble, supra, pp. 661-62.
  16. Struble, ibid, pp. 659-60; Lincoln's letter to William Herndon, 8 January 1848, in Abraham Lincoln, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, 10 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:430-31.
  17. The four constitutional amendments on term limits which the House rejected 29 March 1995 were sponsored by: Democrat John Dingell [12/12 retroactive], rejected 135-297; Republican Bob Inglis [6/12, un-retroactive], rejected 114-316; Republican Van Hilleary [12/12, unretroactive, but defers to more stringent state imposed limits], rejected 164-265; Republican Bill McCollum [12/12 unretroactive and would override more stringent state limits]; approved by less than the requisite 2/3, 227-204; on February 12, 1997 Congress did likewise by a margin of 217-211 [50.7%].
  18. Neil Pinney, George Serra, and Dalene Sprick, "The costs of reform: consequences of limiting legislative terms of service," Party Politics, 10:69-84
  19. Francis N. Thorpe, ed., The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and other Organic Laws..., 7 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909) 5:3048, 3055-56, 3065.

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