CHICAGO – A group that wants to put legislative term limits on the November ballot told an Illinois appeals court Thursday that voters deserve a chance to approve a measure the General Assembly never will pass on its own.
The Committee for Legislative Reform and Term Limits gathered about 600,000 signatures for an initiative that would limit legislators to eight years in office, change the size of the state House and Senate and make it tougher to override a governor’s veto, among other things. But a Cook County judge in June ruled the effort unconstitutional after a lawsuit was filed to try to keep the question off the ballot.
The court battle is steeped in election-year politics and could have big consequences for one of the nation’s most closely watched governor’s races.
“There’s no question that there’s politics involved in this on both sides,” Timothy Eaton, a lawyer for the term limits committee, told a three-judge panel of the Chicago-based 1st District Appellate Court.
Republican businessman Bruce Rauner, who’s trying to unseat Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, is chairman of the committee and has donated about $600,000 to the effort. His campaign says the issue is popular with both Democrats and Republicans, and the campaign believes aligning Rauner with it will help drive people to the polls who will cast ballots for him.
The lawsuit seeking to ban the ballot question was filed on behalf of business groups by attorneys with ties to top Democrats, including House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has served in the General Assembly since 1971. They said taxpayer money shouldn’t be spent for a vote on a change that violates the Illinois Constitution.
Michael Kasper, an attorney for the groups challenging the measure, argued it doesn’t meet a constitutional requirement that any changes proposed for the Legislature must be “structural and procedural.” He said the term limits initiative would affect individual legislators but not the General Assembly as a whole.
Cook County Judge Mary Mikva agreed with that argument earlier this year.
But Eaton argued members of the 1970 constitutional convention wanted voters to be able to make changes – including imposing term limits – because legislators wouldn’t vote to limit themselves.
The appellate court panel didn’t indicate when it would rule, but the term limits committee has asked them to do so by Friday.
The state board of elections must finalize the Nov. 4 ballot by Aug. 22.
If the appellate court upholds Mikva’s ruling, the committee plans to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, which declined earlier this year to immediately consider it.
Quinn led a 1994 effort to limit legislative terms, but it didn’t survive a similar court challenge. He opposes Rauner’s initiative because it would increase the size of the Illinois House and decrease the number of seats in the Senate. In 1980, Quinn led a successful effort to reduce the number of House members.