Term limits date back to the American Revolution, and prior to that to the democracies and republics of antiquity. The council of 500 in ancient Athens rotated its entire membership annually, as did the ephorate in ancient Sparta. The ancient Roman Republic featured a system of elected magistrates—tribunes of the plebs, aediles, quaestors, praetors, and consuls —who served a single term of one year, with re-election to the same magistracy forbidden for ten years (see cursus honorum). According to historian Garrett Fagan, office holding in the Roman Republic was based on "limited tenure of office" which ensured that "authority circulated frequently", helping to prevent corruption. An additional benefit of the cursus honorum or Run of Offices was to bring the "most experienced" politicians to the upper echelons of power-holding in the ancient republic. Many of the founders of the United States were educated in the classics, and quite familiar with rotation in office during antiquity. The debates of that day reveal a desire to study and profit from the object lessons offered by ancient democracy.
Prior to independence, several colonies had already experimented with term limits. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut of 1639, for example, prohibited the colonial governor from serving consecutive terms, setting terms at one year's length, and holding "that no person be chosen Governor above once in two years." Shortly after independence, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 set maximum service in the Pennsylvania General Assembly at "four years in seven". Benjamin Franklin's influence is seen not only in that he chaired the constitutional convention which drafted the Pennsylvania constitution, but also because it included, virtually unchanged, Franklin's earlier proposals on executive rotation. Pennsylvania's plural executive was composed of twelve citizens elected for the term of three years, followed by a mandatory vacation of four years.
The Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781, established term limits for the delegates to the Continental Congress, mandating in Article V that "no person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years."
On October 2, 1789, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of thirteen to examine forms of government for the impending union of the states. Among the proposals was that from the State of Virginia, written by Thomas Jefferson, urging a limitation of tenure, "to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress". The committee made recommendations, which as regards congressional term limits were incorporated unchanged into the Articles of Confederation (1781–89). The fifth Article stated that "no person shall be capable of being a delegate [to the continental congress] for more than three years in any term of six years".
In contrast to the Articles of Confederation, the federal constitution convention at Philadelphia omitted mandatory term limits from the second national frame of government, i.e. the U.S. Constitution of 1789 to the present. However, George Washington set the informal precedent for a two-term limit for the Presidency—a tradition that prevailed until Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, after which the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1951 formally establishing in law the two-term limit.
However, when the states ratified the Constitution (1787–88), several leading statesmen regarded the lack of mandatory limits to tenure as a dangerous defect, especially, they thought, as regards the presidency and the Senate. Richard Henry Lee viewed the absence of legal limits to tenure, together with certain other features of the Constitution, as "most highly and dangerously oligarchic". Both Jefferson and George Mason advised limits on reelection to the Senate and to the Presidency, because said Mason, "nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation". The historian Mercy Otis Warren, warned that "there is no provision for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life; which by a little well-timed bribery, will probably be done".
The fact that "perpetuity in office" was not approached until the 20th century is due in part to the influence of rotation in office as a popular 19th-century concept. "Ideas are, in truth, forces", and rotation in office enjoyed such normative support, especially at the local level, that it altered political reality. For a detailed study of the 19th-century concepts of rotation, consult Political Science Quarterly, vol. 94, "House Turnover and the Principle of Rotation", by Robert Struble, Jr. See also his Treatise on Twelve Lights, chapter six, "Rotation in History". Consult also, James Young's The Washington Community, 1800–1828.
According to Young, the tendency to look with mistrust upon political power was so ingrained into American culture that even the officeholders themselves perceived their occupations in a disparaging light. James Fenimore Cooper described the common view that "contact with the affairs of state is one of the most corrupting of the influences to which men are exposed". An article in the Richmond Enquirer (1822) noted that the "long cherished" principle of rotation in office had been impressed on the republican mind "by a kind of intuitive impulse, unassailable to argument or authority".
Beginning about the 1830s, Jacksonian democracy introduced a less idealistic twist to the practice of limiting terms. Rotation in office came to mean taking turns in the distribution of political prizes. Rotation of nominations to the U.S. House of Representatives—the prizes—became a key element of payoffs to the party faithful. The leading lights in the local party machinery came to regard a nomination for the House as "salary" for political services rendered. A new code of political ethics evolved, based on the proposition that "turnabout is fair play". In short, rotation of nominations was intertwined with the spoils system.
In district nominating conventions local leaders could negotiate and enforce agreements to pass the nominations around among themselves. Abraham Lincoln was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1846 under such a bargain, and he returned home to Springfield after a single congressional term because, he wrote, "to enter myself as a competitor of another, or to authorize anyone so to enter me, is what my word and honor forbid".
During the Civil War, the Confederate States Constitution limited its president to a single six-year term.
The practice of nomination rotation for the House of Representatives began to decline after the Civil War. It took a generation or so before the direct primary system, civil service reforms, and the ethic of professionalism worked to eliminate rotation in office as a common political practice. By the turn of the 20th century the era of incumbency was coming into full swing.
A total of 8 presidents served two full terms and declined a third and three presidents served one full term and refused a second. After World War II, however, an officeholder class had developed to the point that congressional tenure rivaled that of the U.S. Supreme Court, where tenure is for life.
"Homesteading," or securing a lifelong career in Congress, was made possible by reelection rates that approached 100% by the end of the 20th century. The concept of homesteading brought about a popular movement known as the "term-limits movement". The elections of 1990–94 saw the adoption of term limits for state legislatures in almost every state where citizens had the power of the initiative. In addition, 23 states limited service in their delegation to Congress. As they pertain to Congress, these laws are no longer enforceable, however, as in 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned congressional term limits in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, ruling that state governments cannot limit the terms of members of the national government.
Where rotation in the legislative branch has withstood court challenges, term limits continue to garner popular support. As of 2002, the advocacy group "U.S. Term Limits" found that in the 17 states where state legislators served in rotation, public support for term limits ranged from 60 to 78 percent.
As of 2013, term limits at the federal level are restricted to the executive branch and some agencies. Judicial appointments at the federal level are made for life, and are not subject to election or to term limits. The U.S. Congress remains (since the Thornton decision of 1995) without electoral limits. With the election of Donald Trump as president on November 8, 2016, there is a source quoting one of Trump's speeches in October 2016 in which he said that he plans to impose term limits on Congress within his first hundred days in office.
America's first president, George Washington, started the tradition of informal presidential term limits by refusing to run for a third term (originally he claimed he did not want to run in the first place, much less for a second term). The short-lived Confederate States of America adopted a six-year term for their president and vice-president and barred the president from seeking re-election. That innovation was endorsed by many American politicians after the American Civil War, most notably by Rutherford B. Hayes in his inaugural address.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (president, 1933–1945) was the first and only American president to break Washington's tradition successfully. He died in office a few months after starting his fourth term. This gave rise to a successful move in Congress to formalize the traditional two-term limit by amending the U.S. Constitution. As ratified in 1951, the Twenty-Second Amendment provides that "no person shall be elected to the office of President more than twice".
Reformers during the early 1990s used the initiative and referendum to put congressional term limits on the ballot in 24 states. Voters in eight of these states approved the congressional term limits by an average electoral margin of two to one. It was an open question whether states had the constitutional authority to enact these limits. In May 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995), that states cannot impose term limits upon their federal Representatives or Senators.
In the 1994 elections, part of the Republican platform included legislation for term limits in Congress. After winning the majority, a Republican congressman brought a constitutional amendment to the House floor that proposed limiting members of the Senate to two six-year terms and members of the House to six two-year terms. However, this rate of rotation was so slow (the life-tenured Supreme Court averages in the vicinity of twelve years) that the congressional version of term-limits garnered little support among the populist backers of term limits, including U.S. Term Limits, the largest private organization pushing for congressional term limits. The bill got only a bare majority (227–204), falling short of the two-thirds majority (290) needed for constitutional amendments. Three other term limit amendment bills failed to get more than 200 votes.
Defeated in Congress and overridden by the Supreme Court, the federal term limit uprising was brought to a halt. The term limits intended simultaneously to reform state legislatures (as distinguished from the federal congressional delegations) remain in force, however, in fifteen states.
In 2007 Larry J. Sabato revived the debate over term limits by arguing in A More Perfect Constitution that the success and popularity of term limits at the state level suggests that they should be adopted at the federal level as well. He specifically put forth the idea of congressional term limits and suggested a national constitutional convention be used to accomplish the amendment, since the Congress would be unlikely to propose and adopt any amendment that limits its own power.
Some state legislators have also expressed their opinions on term limits. It is confirmed that in the following five states—and there may be others—state lawmakers approved resolutions asking Congress to propose a federal constitutional amendment to limit the number of terms which members of Congress may serve:
- South Dakota Legislature (designated as POM-42 in the U.S. Senate) approved in 1989, South Dakota House Joint Resolution No. 1001 (see Congressional Record of April 4, 1989, at pages 5395 and 5396, with verbatim text provided);
- Hawaii Senate (designated as Memorial 400 in the U.S. House of Representatives) approved in 1990, Hawaii Senate Resolution No. 41—unicameral only (see Congressional Record of September 28, 1998, at page 22655) it took 8 years for this resolution to find its way into the Congressional Record and to be correctly referred to the Committee on the Judiciary—and even then, its text was not provided in the Congressional Record); back in 1990, Hawaii's S.R. No. 41 was indeed received by the U.S. House of Representatives, and was designated as Memorial 416, (Congressional Record of June 6, 1990, at pages 13262 and 13263) but the resolution was erroneously referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce—and its text is NOT provided in the Congressional Record;
- Utah Legislature (designated as POM-644 in the U.S. Senate) approved in 1990, Utah Senate Joint Resolution No. 24 (see Congressional Record of September 27, 1994, at page 26033, with verbatim text provided) it took four years for this resolution to find its way into the U.S. Senate's portion of the Congressional Record;
- Idaho Legislature (designated as Memorial 401 in the U.S. House of Representatives) approved in 1992, Idaho Senate Joint Memorial No. 116 (see Congressional Record of April 29, 1992, at page 9804—text NOT provided in the Congressional Record); and
- Florida Legislature (designated as POM-122 in the U.S. Senate) approved in 2012, Florida House Memorial No. 83 (see Congressional Record of July 25, 2012, at page S5378, with verbatim text provided). Taking matters a bit further, on February 10, 2016, Florida lawmakers approved House Memorial No. 417 calling upon Congress, pursuant to Article V of the Federal Constitution, to assemble a Convention to prepare a constitutional amendment that would establish term limits upon members of Congress.
Legal scholars have discussed whether or not to impose term limits on the Supreme Court of the United States. Currently, Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life "during good behaviour". A sentiment has developed, among certain scholars, that the Supreme Court may not be accountable in a way that is most in line with the spirit of checks and balances. Equally, scholars have argued that life tenure has taken on a new meaning in a modern context. Changes in medical care have markedly raised life expectancy and therefore has allowed Justices to serve for longer than ever before. Steven G. Calebresi and James Lindgren, professors of law at Northwestern University, argued that, because vacancies in the court are occurring with less frequency and justices served on average, between 1971 and 2006, for 26.1 years, the "efficacy of the democratic check that the appointment process provides on the Court's membership" is reduced. There have been several similar proposals to implement term limits for the nation's highest court, including Professor of Law at Duke University, Paul Carrington's 2005 "The Supreme Court Renewal Act of 2005".
Many of the proposals center around a term limit for Justices that would be 18 years (Larry Sabato, Professor of Political Science at University of Virginia, suggested between 15 and 18 years). The proposed staggered term limits of 18 years would, according to Calebresi, Lindgren (2006), and Carrington (2005), allow for a new appointment to the Court every two years, which in effect would allow every president at least two appointments. Professor Carrington has argued that such a measure would not require a constitutional amendment as the "Constitution doesn’t even mention life tenure; it merely requires that justices serve during ‘good behaviour’ ". The idea was not without support among Judges, as John Roberts supported term limits before he was appointed to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice. Calebresi, Lingren, and Carrington have also proposed that when justices have served out their proposed 18-year term they should be able to sit on other Federal Courts until retirement, death, or removal.
Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind Poll measured American voters’ attitudes towards various proposed Supreme Court reforms, including implementing term limits. The 2010 poll found that a majority of Americans were largely unaware of a proposal to impose a term limit of 18 years, as 82% reported they had heard little or nothing at all. Notwithstanding a lack of awareness, 52% of Americans approved of limiting terms to 18 years, while 35% disapproved. When asked how old is too old for a Supreme Court judge to serve if he or she seems healthy, 48% said "no limit as long as he or she is healthy", while 31% agreed that anyone over the age of 70 is too old.
Some state lawmakers have officially expressed to Congress a desire for a federal constitutional amendment to limit terms of Supreme Court justices as well as of judges of federal courts below the Supreme Court level. While there might be others, below are three known examples:
- In 1957, the Alabama Legislature adopted Senate Joint Resolution No. 47 on the subject (appearing in the U.S. Senate's portion of the Congressional Record on July 3, 1957, at page 10863, with full text provided);
- In 1978, the Tennessee General Assembly adopted House Joint Resolution No. 21 on the subject (designated as POM-612 by the U.S. Senate and quoted in full in the Congressional Record of April 25, 1978, at page 11437); and
- In 1998, the Louisiana House of Representatives adopted House Resolution No. 120 on the subject (designated as POM-511 by the U.S. Senate and quoted in full in the Congressional Record of July 17, 1998, at page 16076).
Term limits for state officials have existed since colonial times. The Pennsylvania Charter of Liberties of 1682, and the colonial frame of government of the same year, both authored by William Penn, provided for triennial rotation of the provincial council—the upper house of the colonial legislature. The Delaware Constitution of 1776 limited the governor to a single three-year term; currently, the governor of Delaware can serve two four-year terms.
At present, 36 states have term limits of various types for their governors. To circumvent the term limit in Alabama incumbent governor George Wallace pushed through the nomination of his wife Lurleen, in the 1966 Democratic primary, which was, in those days, the real contest in Alabama. It was generally understood that Mrs. Wallace would only be a titular governor while her husband continued to hold the real power. She won the election, but only served 16 months before dying in 1968.
As indicated above, in fifteen state legislatures the members serve in rotation, i.e., under term limits enacted during the reforms of the early 1990s. In another six states, however, state legislatures have either overturned their own limits or state supreme courts have ruled such limits unconstitutional. In 2002 the Idaho Legislature became the first legislature of its kind to repeal its own term limits, enacted by a public vote in 1994, ostensibly because it applied to local officials along with the legislature.
Governors of 36 states and four territories are subject to various term limits, while the governors of 14 states, Puerto Rico, and the Mayor of Washington, D.C., may serve an unlimited number of times. Each state's gubernatorial term limits are prescribed by its state constitution, with the exception of Wyoming, whose limits are found in its statutes. Territorial term limits are prescribed by its constitution in the Northern Mariana Islands, the Organic Acts in Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and by statute in American Samoa.
Unique in its restriction, Virginia prohibits its governors from succeeding themselves, although former governors are re-eligible after four years out of office. Many other states formerly had this prohibition, but all had eliminated it by 2000.
The governors of the following states and territories are limited to two consecutive terms, but are re-eligible after four years out of office: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Equivalently, the Governors of Indiana and Oregon are limited to serving 8 out of any 12 years. Conversely, the Governors of Montana and Wyoming are restricted to two terms, limited to serving 8 out of any 16 years. Finally, the governors of the following states and territory are absolutely limited (for life) to two terms: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Oklahoma. The current Governor of California (Jerry Brown) is, however, serving a fourth term because his first two terms were before limits were passed in California, and the limits did not apply to individuals' prior terms.
The governors of New Hampshire and Vermont may serve unlimited two-year terms. The chief executives in the following states, district, and territory may serve unlimited four-year terms: Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The Governor of Utah was formerly limited to serving three terms, but all term limit laws have since been repealed by the legislature.
The following 15 legislatures have term limits:Arizona Legislature: four consecutive two-year terms for both houses (eight years). No limit on total number of terms.
Arkansas General Assembly: sixteen years total in either the House or the Senate. (Prior to the 2014 election, the previous limits of three two-year terms for House members (six years) and two four-year terms for Senate members (eight years) applied).
California State Legislature: twelve years total in either Assembly or Senate. (For legislators first elected on or before June 5, 2012, the previous limits (enacted in 1990) of either three two-year terms for Assembly members (six years) and two four-year terms for Senate members (eight years) apply).
Colorado General Assembly: four consecutive two-year terms in the House (eight years) and two consecutive four-year terms in the Senate (eight years).
Florida Legislature: may serve no more than eight consecutive years in either house. No limit on total number of terms.
Louisiana State Legislature: three consecutive four-year terms for both houses (twelve years).
Maine Legislature: four two-year terms for both houses (eight years). No limit on total humber of terms
Michigan Legislature: three two-year terms for House members (six years) and two four-year terms for Senate members (eight years).
Missouri General Assembly: four consecutive two-year terms for House members (eight years) and two four-year consecutive terms for Senate members (eight years). Members may be elected again to the other house, but not serve more than 16 years.
Montana State Legislature: four two-year terms for House members (eight years) in any sixteen-year period and two four-year terms for Senate members (eight years) in any sixteen-year period.
Nebraska Legislature: unicameral legislature; members limited to two consecutive four-year terms (eight years), after which they must wait four years before running again.
Nevada Legislature: six two-year terms for Assembly members (twelve years) and three four-year terms for Senate members (twelve years).
Ohio General Assembly: four consecutive two-year terms for House members (eight years) and two consecutive four-year terms for Senate members (eight years).
Oklahoma Legislature: six two-year terms for House members (twelve years) and three four-year terms for Senate members (twelve years). Once term-limited in one house, a legislator cannot be elected to the other.
South Dakota Legislature: four consecutive two-year terms for both houses (eight years).
The following six legislatures have had their term limits nullified:Idaho Legislature: the Legislature repealed its own term limits in 2002.
Massachusetts General Court: the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned term limits in 1997.
Oregon Legislative Assembly: the Oregon Supreme Court ruled term limits unconstitutional in 2002. See term limits in Oregon.
Utah State Legislature: the Legislature repealed its own term limits in 2003.
Washington State Legislature: the Washington Supreme Court voided term limits in 1998.
Wyoming Legislature: the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled term limits unconstitutional in 2004. See term limits in Wyoming.
Some local governments have term limits. In Philadelphia, the mayor cannot be elected three consecutive times, but there is no limit on how long any individual can serve as mayor. Frank Rizzo was elected mayor in 1971 and 1975; he attempted to repeal the term limit, but failed and could not run in 1979. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for mayor in 1983 but he lost to Wilson Goode. In 1986, he switched to the Republican Party, and ran as a Republican in the mayoral elections of 1987 and 1991.
Limits vary from city to city even within the same state. For example, Houston, Texas, has a limit of 2 four-year terms (prior to November 3, 2015, 3 two-year terms dating back to 1991), while San Antonio, Texas, has a limit of 4 two-year terms. Both Houston and San Antonio's term limits are absolute; elected officeholders are ineligible to run for the same position where seeking higher office is common.
A two-term limit was imposed on New York City Council members and citywide elected officials (except for district attorneys) in New York City after a 1993 referendum (see the Charter of the City of New York, § 1138). On November 3, 2008, however, when Michael Bloomberg was in his second term of mayor, the City Council approved the extension of the two-term limit to a three-term limit; one year later, he was elected to a third term. The two-term limit was reinstated after a referendum in 2010.
In Los Angeles the mayor serves two four-year terms since 1993, while the City Council serve three four-year terms.
In Cincinnati, Ohio, the term limit for mayor is two successive four-year terms. Council members are limited to two successive four-year terms. There is no limit to total terms that may be served, just a limit on successive terms.
Under the original Metropolitan Charter adopted in 1962, the mayor of Nashville was limited to three consecutive four-year terms, which was subsequently reduced to two consecutive four-year terms in 1991. Councilors were likewise limited to two consecutive four-year terms, but subsequent court rulings have determined the offices of district councilor and at-large councilor to be separate offices even though all councilors serve together in one unicameral body, which has meant that at large councilors have continued in office as district members, and (more frequently) district councilors have been elected to subsequent terms as at large councilors.