Legislative Term Limits: An Overview


Proposals to limit the terms of state legislators have been the subject of public policy debate since 1990, when citizen initiatives limiting the terms of legislators were passed by voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma. Subsequently, 18 other states adopted term limits, but in four - Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming - term limits were thrown out by the state supreme courts, and they have been repealed by the legislatures in Idaho and Utah. That leaves 15 states with term limits for legislators. See our current list of states with term limits for legislators.

No new states have adopted term limits since 2000. Term limits have been changed occasionally; most recently, Arkansas extended its term limits from six years in the House and eight years in the Senate to a 16 year cumulative total.

The Clock's Ticking...

1996 was the first year term limits took effect. In Maine, 26 House members and four senators were ineligible to run for re-election in 1996. In California, 22 members of the Assembly could not run.

The tempo increased dramatically in 1998 when time ran out for another 204 members in both chambers in California, Colorado and Maine, the Missouri Senate, and the Arkansas, Michigan and Oregon House chambers. The 1998 term limit casualty list hit the hardest in the Arkansas and Michigan Houses: half of Arkansas's 100 House members and 64 of Michigan's 110 members could not run for re-election in 1998. Among the departing members in Colorado were the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate, majority leaders in both chambers as well as the House minority leader, four of the six budget committee members and more than half of the 26 committee chairs.

In 2000, term limits took effect in an additional five states: Arizona, Florida, Montana, Ohio and South Dakota. Florida and Ohio were hit hardest -- half the House was ineligible to run for re-election. A total of 380 legislators in 12 states were ineligible to run in 2000.

Term limits kicked in for the Missouri Legislature and the Michigan Senate in 2002. 45% of Missouri's Legislature was termed out, and a full 71% of the Michigan Senate. In all, 322 legislators in 11 states were unable to run for re-election in 2002. In the 2004 elections, 261 legislators were ineligible to run for reelection.  This number included 29 veteran leaders and the chairs of 122 standing committes.

Court Challenges

Legislative term limits have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts in four states. Oregon's limits were thrown out on January 11, 2002 by the state supreme court. The case hinged on the state's single-subject requirement for initiatives. The court ruled that the 1992 initiative that imposed term limits in Oregon addressed more than one section of the state's constitution, and was therefore in violation of the single-subject rule. The Montana Supreme Court rejected a similar challenge to that state's term limits law in March 2002.

In both Massachusetts and Washington, term limits were thrown out in the 1990s. In both states, term limits were established via an initiative to the statutes, and the states' supreme courts ruled that it was impermissible to establish constitutional qualifications for office in the statutes.  The 2004 case invalidating Wyoming's limits was decided on the same grounds.

Additional Resources