8 former lawmakers file lawsuit to slay Michigan term limits

By: - November 20, 2019 2:56 pm

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Updated, 3:27 p.m., 11/20/19 with comments from U.S. Term Limits

A lawsuit filed today in a state district court says term limits have created considerable damage, stopped experienced individuals from seeking office and are unconstitutional.

A bipartisan group of eight former legislators are fighting to adjust term limits in Michigan with this lawsuit, citing all they were able to accomplish during their terms and how further into their careers, progress increased. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is named as the defendant.

Attorney John Bursch | Nick Manes

Plaintiffs include: Roger Kahn of Saginaw Township, Paul Opsommer of DeWitt, David Nathan of Detroit, Scott Dianda of Calumet, Clark Harder of Owosso, Mary Valentine of Norton Shores and Doug Spade of Adrian.

In 1992, 60% of voters approved the Michigan constitutional amendment to restrict legislative and executive terms.

One of the attorneys, former state Solicitor General John Bursch, presented the lawsuit alongside some of the plaintiffs at a media conference on Wednesday after filing the suit earlier that morning. He noted Michigan has some of the strictest term limits in the country, which he said barred experienced individuals from best serving the state.

“There is not another system like it in the United States. What we’ve learned from experience over all these years is that it has not been good for Michigan government or for people,” Bursch said. “When you take the most experienced people out of  government, it shifts the balance of power to career bureaucrats and lobbyists and that’s not where the power is supposed to reside when it comes to the legislative branches.”

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Currently, Michigan lawmakers can only serve three terms for a total of six years in the state House or two terms totaling eight years in the state Senate. After the set terms, they are barred for life from those offices. Bursch said the hope is that the lawsuit educates Michiganders about the value of being able to elect individuals with experience.

However, Scott Tillman, national field director for the Washington, D.C.-based group U.S. Term Limits, said the law still remains popular.

“This is a group of lobbyists and former legislators who want people to believe lobbyists are suing to overturn term limits because term limits empower lobbyists,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. Lobbyists and politicians have been trying to undo Michigan’s term limits since before they were passed in 1992. Why would lobbyists hater term limits if term limits give the lobbyists power? They hate term limits because it forces them buy new legislators every 6 years. Lobbyists and bureaucrats would have it much easier if they didn’t need to justify their pet projects to new legislators every six years.”*

There’s been no shortage of critiques of term limits over the years in Lansing, and others have recently expressed interest in reforms.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said during a forum in May that was interested in a ballot initiative in 2022 to reform term limits. His goal would be to eliminate a limit entirely, but said other options are being evaluated.

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Voters Not Politicians (VNP) and Republican leaders, groups and activists also have held talks to address term limits and other government reform.

Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), who have opposed VNP’s successful efforts in redistricting reform with Proposal 2 of 2018, have been party to discussions in an effort to create bipartisan support.

The lawsuit filed alleges violations of the U.S. Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments and only looks at term limits for the state House and Senate. 

Michigan also has term limits for the executive branch for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general. They can only serve two, four-year terms. However, Steven Liedel, former chief legal counsel to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said a successful challenge likely would wipe out those term limits, as well.

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Many issues that take years to resolve are difficult to tackle under term limits, Kahn said. Road funding is a prime example, he said.

Roger Kahn

“Our ability to legislate effectively requires us to 1. develop some competence, 2. to develop relationships 3. something that was hard for me, to learn how to do that without getting too emotional,” said Kahn, a GOP former state senator. “I feel that my ability to run and my ideals in life to do this sort of thing has been lost and abridged and I’m treated no different than if I was a felon.”

Not everyone named in the lawsuit has personally felt the impacts of reaching their term limit. Valentine, a Democratic former state House member who only served two terms, said she wants lawmakers to have enough time to become great at their jobs.

Valentine brought up her experience as a speech therapist and Kahn raised his as a doctor, with both saying experience in their fields made them better at their jobs. They said more experience in the Legislature is no different. By the time a legislator has reached their term limit, they’re finally in a position to effectively make change and have relationships to work in a bipartisan fashion, they argued.

“That process, to make it go through, to carry a bill from an idea all the way to a law is complex,” Valentine said. “It requires experience to learn how to do it, as well as the depth of knowledge you need and the relationships, just figuring out how to that takes a long time.”

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Anna Liz Nichols
Anna Liz Nichols

Anna Liz Nichols is a former Michigan Advance intern. She is a Michigan State University graduate who has reported for several publications, including MLive and Michigan State University’s award-winning student paper, the State News, where she covered the many tendrils of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.