Lessons of Nation's Term-Limit Lab California Experiment

Article excerpt

Pete Knight was an Air Force test pilot who flew an X-15 rocket plane to a never-equaled 4,250 miles per hour and won his astronaut's wings when he steered the craft to an altitude of 280,000 feet.

Sheila Kuehl also achieved a modicum of fame, playing Zelda on the "Dobie Gillis" TV series in the 1950s before becoming a lawyer, law professor, and lesbian-rights advocate.

During the 1990s, however, Mr. Knight, a conservative Republican, and Ms. Kuehl, a liberal Democrat, became members of the California Legislature - twin embodiments of the cultural revolution that overtook the state Capitol after voters enacted legislative term limits. The 1990 ballot measure produced a bumper crop of novice lawmakers, breaking the virtual monopoly by political insiders. Prior to adoption of term limits, "ex-legislative staffer" was the single most common occupation among the 120 men and women in the two-house Legislature. But suddenly, there was a deluge of city council and school board members, cops, teachers, farmers, business owners, and other outsiders - as well as unprecedented numbers of women and ethnic minorities. Seven years after Californians sparked a revolt against entrenched incumbency, the state's politicians, pundits, and political scientists are still debating the effects of term limits. The courts, too, continue to judge the measure's constitutionality, but California, meanwhile, is America's largest-scale test of what term limits would mean if adopted for Congress, as many advocate. California was one of three states that adopted legislative term limits in 1990; 16 others have since done so. And in 1992, California, along with many other states, enacted congressional term limits that were later set aside by the US Supreme Court. Term-limit supporters say the measure has cracked a figurative wall between a highly paid, professional Legislature and 30-plus million Californians. But a federal appeals court recently ruled that the 1990 measure is unconstitutional because voters were not explicitly told that politicians would be barred from ever seeking offices once they had reached the limits, six years in the state Assembly and six years in the Senate. "In matters this important, the state simply must tell its citizens what they are voting on," US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in a 2-1 ruling. State election officials are appealing to the US Supreme Court not only to overturn the Reinhardt ruling, but also to continue term limits for the 1998 elections while the case is decided. …