FILE - Michigan State Capitol

The Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan.

A bipartisan group of eight former state legislators are filing suit to overturn Michigan’s term limits.

Five Democrats and three Republicans filed the lawsuit against Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in federal court in Grand Rapids. The group asserts Michigan’s current term limits violate the U.S. Constitution’s provisions for ballot access and freedom of association as well as the title-object clause of the state Constitution.

The group includes former Republican legislators Roger Kahn of Saginaw Township, Joseph Haveman of Holland and Paul Opsommer of DeWitt, and former Democratic legislators Scott Dianda of Calumet, Clark Harder of Owosso, David Nathan of Detroit, Doug Spade of Adrian and Mary Valentine of Muskegon County. Only Valentine is eligible under current law to run again for state political office.

The lawsuit is funded by a group calling itself Michiganders for Good Government, a nonprofit entity that lists lobbyist and former GOP legislative aide Rusty Merchant as its agent. According to the Detroit News, five of the former office holders listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are registered currently as lobbyists.

Michigan voters approved Proposal B, which established legislative term limits, in 1992. Supported by 58.7 percent of voters, Proposal B restricted state representatives to three two-year terms and state senators to two four-year terms. The two offices were stackable, meaning a representative term-limited after serving three terms could then conceivably serve two terms as state senator.

“Those term limits – the shortest in the nation and paired with a lifetime ban – violate Plaintiffs’ federal constitutional rights and ensure a legislative body lacking experience, the quality that James Madison singled out in The Federalist Papers as essential to a competent and well-functioning legislature…,” the complaint for declaratory relief and a permanent injunction reads.

The free market Mackinac Center for Public Policy was a proponent of Proposal B when it passed in 1992. Writing for the Mackinac Center in December 2000, then-President Lawrence Reed said: “Term limits were never intended as a magic bullet for any real or perceived flaw in government. Sooner or later, people in a free and democratic society get the government they vote for. Term limits cannot ensure good government if voters with bad ideas replace bad legislators with other bad people.”

“Nonetheless, it's premature to draw any sweeping conclusions about Michigan's brief experience with term limits,” Reed added. “We have lost some institutional knowledge and expertise that long-time legislators possessed, but the newcomers have brought fresh perspectives, a diversity of professional backgrounds, and a little more youthful vigor to the Legislature.”

Nine years later, however, the plaintiff’s argue in their complaint: “Michigan’s term limits can survive no level of scrutiny. Instead, the amendment has proven a failed social experiment: it has decreased the experience and competency of the legislature, decreased bipartisanship and coalition building, increased dynastic and recruitment-based representation, and increased the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups."

The Citizens Research Council published a report in 2018 that concluded term limits have failed ultimately to realize the goals promised to voters in 1992. 

“The crux of our study on term limits is that they’re far shorter and stricter than in other states,” CRC President Eric Lupher told The Center Square. “This hinders legislators’ ability to be effective in the offices they were elected to.”

According to the CRC report: “Twenty-five years ago, term limits proponents persuaded Michigan voters that limiting legislators’ tenure in office would revitalize American democracy. Scored against the improvements promised by those proponents of term limits, there is little indication that term limits have delivered on those promises."

Mackinac Center Executive Vice President Michael Reitz told The Center Square that Proposal B might have provided positive results for Michigan that might not have happened without term limits.

“It’s worth asking whether term limits delivered the benefits voters expected,” Reitz said. “It’s also worth asking a different question: The Legislature accomplished major reforms in the last decade, such as eliminating the Michigan Business Tax, passing right-to-work, funding public school pensions and reforming auto insurance. Would that have happened without term limits?”

Reitz's cohort, Legislative Analyst Jack McHugh also weighed in on the matter. "Term limits have not met all the expectations of their backers – but that applies even more to the negative predictions of opponents," he said in an email sent to The Center Square. "One unexpected outcome was to reveal the extent of the ‘political class’ at all levels of government: 'Citizen legislators' remain the exception in legislative bodies populated largely with former local government or public school officials and employees (and often the spouses of termed-out former lawmakers)," McHugh wrote.

"On the positive side, the legislative 'empires' built in the past by some long-serving House and Senate members are a thing of the past," continued McHugh. "This led to corruption (a “House Fiscal Agency” scandal led to several indictments of legislators in the early 1990s) and had negative policy consequences too," he said.

Regional Editor

Bruce Walker is a regional editor at The Center Square. He previously worked as editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s MichiganScience magazine and The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.