HERE we go again: Another assault on one of the most popular political concepts ever to hit the ballot in Oklahoma.
State Rep. Richard Morrissette blames legislative term limits and inexperienced lawmakers for a plethora of laws struck down by the courts. He's wrong, as usual. Law professor Andrew Spiropoulos is right, as usual, in saying term limits aren't the problem. Judicial inconsistency is. Another key factor is ideology, not inexperience.
Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, is a self-appointed burr in the saddle of Republicans who took over the House when the term-limit law took full effect in 2004 (the Senate went Republican four years later). GOP lawmakers have passed a number of bills that have been challenged or struck down by state or federal courts. The reason for this isn't term limits. It's ideology.
Pent-up demand for legislation led to an outpouring of ill-advised bills, particularly concerning reproductive rights. They passed not because of inexperienced legislators but because supporters had the votes. In the case of an anti-Sharia law measure, struck down recently by a federal judge, it was the people — not legislators still wet behind the ears — who enacted the law.
Term-limit law opponents still bemoan the decision voters made in 1990 to limit the terms of lawmakers to 12 years. So popular are term limits here that Oklahoma tried (unsuccessfully) to apply them to members of its congressional delegation. In 2010, voters imposed term limits on all statewide elected officials, a measure that we opposed. If given the chance to limit the terms of the judiciary branch, we have no doubt the people would do so, overwhelmingly.
Despite the clear preference among voters for term limits, Morrissette and others complain about their supposed effects. He says the limit law results in frequent turnover. It also reduces “institutional knowledge,” leading to legislation that can't withstand judicial scrutiny. Yet it's been nearly 10 years since the departure of the last of the lawmakers whose terms were limited by the initial 12-year run. This means many of today's lawmakers have eight or more years of experience.
Morrissette fails to mention that frequent turnover is sometimes aided by the voluntary departure of legislators whose terms haven't expired. Lately, these have mostly been Democrats in powerful positions. In some cases they were frustrated by being members of what appears to be a perpetual minority.
This is exactly the position Republicans were in for most of the time since statehood. Democratic incumbents, led by Senator-for-Life Gene Stipe, were entrenched. Stipe left as a result of a corruption scandal, but most of the other “lions” were forced out by term limits. To be clear, some veteran Republicans didn't like the term-limit law either.
And to make it abundantly clear that the law sometimes results in unfortunate losses, we were sorry to see champions of probity (such as former House Speaker Kris Steele) leave the Legislature. But the law treats all members equally: 12 years and you're out. The time frame isn't optimum (16 years would be better), but the people have spoken.
Lawmakers met in special session last week because of an example Morrissette cited in making the case that greenhorn legislators are problematic. The state Supreme Court's negation of a 2009 tort reform package led to the special session. Spiropoulos says term limits aren't the reason legislators had to return early to the Capitol.
The problem, he said, “is the standards the court uses to decide these cases are so confusing it is difficult to tell ahead of time” what is constitutional and what isn't. Opponents of bills may wave the “Unconstitutional!” flag, but this doesn't mean the court will follow a consistent path and provide lawmakers with clear guidance.
Lawyers and special-interest groups who specialize in challenging the constitutionality of legislation have plenty of room to crow that the Legislature is consistently passing unconstitutional bills. But is this due to term limits? Hardly. Lawmakers passing these bills — and the political party they represent — have gone on ideological forays guaranteed to draw legal challenges.
While their majority status itself is partly due to term limits, the inexperience of legislators isn't the reason for their ideology. It's just part of the package that many Republicans bring to the Legislature. The result? Abortion bills challenged almost on the day they take effect, the decision to put a Ten Commandments monument on state Capitol grounds and a host of other bills with an ideological bent. We've often urged the majority party to avoid ideological sidetracks. They've done so anyway. But this has little to do with inexperience or term limits.
Over the years, term-limit law opponents have leveled withering criticism at the law, as if it were responsible for everything up to and including droughts, spoiled milk or OU football setbacks. The opponents say voters can limit the terms of any politician they don't like. Yet voters in 1990 voluntarily surrendered that right and, less than four years ago, took themselves out of the process of keeping a statewide official on the job for more than eight years (12 in the case of corporation commissioners).
Sooner or later, every term-limited legislator will leave. An open seat will be up for grabs. Democrats have every opportunity to compete for these seats and send new, inexperienced lawmakers to the Capitol. If Democrats ever regain the majority due to term limits, will Morrissette complain about their lack of experience?
If so, he likely will do so as an ex-legislator: The term limit for him, fortunately, takes effect in 2016.