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Judge Declares Congressional Term Limits Unconstitutional

By Dan Balz
The Washington Post

A federal district judge dealt the term limits movement a sharp setback Thursday, ruling that the state of Washington's new law limiting congressional terms is unconstitutional.

The Washington measure, approved as a ballot initiative by Washington voters in 1992, would limit House members to three two-year terms over 12 years and members of the Senate to two six-year terms over 18 years.

Known as Initiative 573, the new law is similar to initiatives approved in 14 other states since 1990 as part of a grass-roots rebellion against political incumbents.

The Washington case has been closely watched by both sides of the term limits fight as the first step in resolving whether the Constitution would bar the voters from imposing such limits on incumbents.

Among those who challenged the measure in court was House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., who would have to retire in 1998 if the law is upheld.

U.S. District Judge William L. Dwyer, in a broad ruling, said the Washington term limits initiative was unconstitutional because it wrongly attempted to add qualifications for congressional candidates beyond those stipulated in the Constitution -- age, citizenship and residency in the state represented.

"A state may not diminish its voters' constitutional freedom of choice by making would-be candidates for Congress ineligible on the basis of incumbency or history of congressional service," Dwyer wrote.

The judge also said the measure violated the First and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, describing the term limits initiative as imposing "unduly restrictive" ballot access requirements on incumbent candidates and inimical to the "freedom of association" guaranteed by the First Amendment.

He said the term limits initiative "is aimed not at achieving order and fairness in the process (of elections) but at preventing a disfavored group of candidates from being elected at all."

In a cautious and carefully worded statement, Foley said the decision "provdes an important framework for the resolution of one of the most important constitutional questions of the decade." But he stopped short of claiming victory, noting only that a final ruling from the Supreme Court "would be in the best interests of the voters of the state of Washington and of the nation."

Term limits advocates, while disappointed by the breadth of the ruling, said they were not surprised by the basic decision. But they vowed to carry the case to the Supreme Court and said the lower court defeat would help energize their supporters in the states. Dwyer did not address the issue of term limits on candidates for state office.

In a statement issued by the Term Limits Legal Institute, former attorney general Griffin Bell, who argued the case in favor of the Washington measure, called Dwyer's ruling the "historic first step to the United States Supreme Court," where he said he was confident the proponents could prevail.

Cleta Deatherage Mitchell, director of the Term Limits Legal Insititute, said Thursday's ruling, while preliminary, could hinder efforts in other states to put term limits initiatives on the ballot this year. But she added, "The (term limits) committees will go ahead, the citizens will go ahead."