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46 years as “The Voice of Massachusetts Taxpayers”
and their Institutional Memory

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The Death of Term Limits in Massachusetts

(It's not like we didn't try!)

In 1990 Dorothea Vitrac and Citizens for Limited Taxation proposed the first term limits on the state Legislature and the the Massachusetts congressional delegation.  Back then Chip Ford (now CLT's executive director) ran the (two) statewide petition drives for LIMITS as a freelance consultant.  Dorothea's group LIMITS first succeeded getting the signatures for a constitutional amendment.  The Legislature's Constitutional Convention tied it up in knots to avoid a vote by sending it to the state Supreme Judicial Court for an "advisory opinion" on its constitutionality.

The SJC ruled it was constitutional, but in 1992 the Legislature then refused to return it to the Con-Con calendar for a vote.  It was LIMITS' turn to take this to the SJC which ruled that as long as the Legislature was in session, it might, might still be brought up for a vote, so the SJC could and would not act.

When the Legislature finally adjourned the following January without ever voting on our amendment.  When we went back to the SJC it informed us that it was too late for the court to rule any further, the Legislature had prorogued for the session:  The proposed term limits amendment was dead, killed by inaction through parliamentary obfuscation.

So, recognizing the potential was zero for a term limits constitutional amendment, we went back out and got the signatures on an initiative petition for a term limits statute a law.  We again collected more than enough certified signatures (over 75,000) and this time put it on the 1994 ballot, where it was overwhelmingly approved by the voters.

When the law was about to take effect, in 1995 the Legislature sued before the Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled that term limits could not be imposed by statute, but only by constitutional amendment a classic Catch 22, the dog chasing its tail.

CLT gave up attempting to amend the state Constitution.  The people’s right to amend their constitution in all practicality does not exist in Massachusetts.  The only ones who can amend it are legislators as they did in 1998 with their constitutionally-mandated and guaranteed automatic pay hikes through a ballot question of their own wording emphasizing that it would "prevent legislators from ever again voting to raise their salaries" underplaying that they would never need to; future pay raises would become automatic.  It passed on the ballot making our Legislature the only legislative body in the history of the world with constitutionally guaranteed pay raises.

Then in 2017 the Legislature end-ran even that distinction by passing an obscenely huge (40%-55%) increase in their "stipends" for all legislators and committee leaders, a side-hustle that made the Massachusetts House speaker and Senate president the highest-paid in the nation, and adopted a different formula from “median household income” to keep this grift increasing automatically every two years.

If it doesn't benefit the Legislature directly or if legislators don't like it, despite the people’s best efforts a constitutional amendment will not make it onto the ballot for the "unwashed masses" to decide. If the constitution is to be amended, it will be exclusively for the benefit of Beacon Hill politicians.

From the CLT UPDATE of
Thursday, July 17, 1997

Death of Term Limits—Obituary I
The Boston Globe
Thursday, July 17, 1997

The fall of term limits - and of the SJC
By Jeff Jacoby

Once, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts was renowned for its independence and integrity. Few courts in America could match the SJC in legal brilliance or scholarly eminence. Presided over by such men as Isaac Parker, Lemuel Shaw, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the SJC for many years cast one of the most imposing shadows in American jurisprudence.

But the SJC has declined with age. Instead of independence and integrity, the state’s high court is now known for its pliancy and deference to political insiders. In a Boston Globe interview last January, Chief Justice Herbert Wilkins observed that he doesn’t mind nepotism and patronage in the judicial system, since they help judges curry favor with state legislators.

"We want to speak kindly to the Legislature," he said, conceding that lawmakers like to stash friends and relatives on the court payroll. "I don’t know that people ought to be discriminated against because they happen to be related to a politician." He expressed the hope that he would be judged by his ability to coax the Legislature into authorizing a $685 million courthouse bond bill and a new computer network for the courts.

When the chief justice of the SJC regards the delivery of pork as his highest priority, we are a long way from Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Which brings us to the SJC’s 6-0 decision last week to kill the Massachusetts term limits law.

The ruling was a violent insult to Massachusetts voters, who adopted the law by initiative on Election Day 1994. It was also a grave setback for democracy and the rule of law. For in essence, the SJC endorsed the proposition that if the Legislature wishes to stonewall the voters and track mud through the state constitution, no court will interfere.

For six years, Massachusetts politicians have treated term limits proponents with derision and deceit. The proponents, by contrast, have behaved scrupulously. In 1991 they drafted a constitutional amendment limiting legislators and statewide incumbents to eight years in office. After their language was validated by the attorney general, they collected 75,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

But they first had to go to the Legislature, which - under Article 48 of the Massachusetts Constitution - must vote on proposed amendments in a joint session before they can go to the electorate. As long as 25 percent of legislators back an amendment, it is submitted to the voters.

But when the joint session convened on May 13, 1992, the term limits amendment never got a vote. The presiding officer, Bill Bulger, then president of the Senate, arranged to have it sent to the bottom of the agenda. When the joint session convened again on June 10, Bulger refused to bring it up. When it reconvened on June 24, he again refused to allow a vote. And so it went for seven months, through joint session after joint session, until the legislative clock was about to expire.

Stunned by the Legislature’s arrogance, term limits advocates turned to the Supreme Judicial Court. In December 1992 they asked the court to order the Legislature to take the required vote. The SJC refused. Under the "separation of powers," it held, it could not compel lawmakers to obey the constitution.

On Jan. 4, 1993, the Legislature met in its final session. No business was transacted. No vote was held. When the time ran out, the amendment was dead.

Angrier than ever, the term limits reformers resolved to start all over - only this time with a statute instead of an amendment. (Proposed statutes can go to the voters without a legislative vote.) What they devised was an initiative that technically would not bar an eight-year incumbent from seeking reelection, but would deny him a spot on the ballot. An incumbent wanting to stay in office would have to run as a write-in candidate - and would get no salary if he won. It was a convoluted path to term limits, but it was the only way to do it without having to amend the constitution.

Once more, the petitions went out. Once more, 75,000 signatures had to be collected. Once more, legislators denounced the initiative in vitriolic terms. (One senator, Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, compared term limits advocates to Adolf Hitler). But in November 1994 the measure finally appeared on the ballot, becoming law by vote of the people.

There the matter should have ended. But in Massachusetts, it is not the people who have final say. It is the politicians.

One year after the election, a phalanx of legislators asked the high court to declare the new law unconstitutional. To ensure the justices’ compliance, the lucrative bond bill so coveted by Chief Justice Wilkins was put on hold. When the court heard oral arguments in the case last May, it signaled loudly and clearly that it was prepared to kill the law. The bond bill was promptly passed.

Last Friday the SJC mowed the statute down. It ruled that politicians’ terms can be limited only by amendment. And if lawmakers "defy the requirements of the Constitution" by obstructing an amendment? Too bad, said the justices. Supporters of term limits will just have to live with "discouragement."

When courts refuse to uphold the law, they become worse than useless. The SJC, long fallen from eminence, is now just a tool for political hacks. If Oliver Wendell Holmes could view his successors, he would turn aside in disgust.

Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist.

Death of Term Limits—Obituary II
The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, July 17, 1997

Editorial: Tea Time in Massachusetts
(Written by John Fund)

It is a debatable question whether Massachusetts, the cradle of American liberty, is today governed by its people or by an arrogant elite that ignores the public’s wishes and the state’s constitution.

This month, the state’s Supreme Court voted unanimously to invalidate a 1994 law - passed by voters - that limited members of the state Legislature and statewide officials to eight years in office. The court ruled that in barring officeholders from the ballot after eight years the law actually changed the "qualifications" for offices, and required a constitutional amendment.

Term limit proponents are in shock. They indeed tried to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, and collected more than 100,000 signatures to do just that. But the initiative needed the backing of 25% of the Legislature to get on the ballot. In a brazen power play, then Senate President William Bulger blocked any vote.

On 11 separate occasions over seven months he asked a joint session to consider various amendments, but used parliamentary sleight-of-hand to avoid a vote on term limits. Facing a deadline, a frustrated Governor William Weld called the Legislature into session and asked them to vote on term limits. Instead, Senator Bulger adjourned the Legislature, invalidating the signatures and forcing term limit proponents to collect new ones to put a less binding statute on the ballot. That resulting law is the one that has failed the court’s scrutiny.

Five years later, the Supreme Court agreed as part of its ruling that the Legislature violated the state’s constitution. But it will not enforce that mandate and says it’s up to the Governor and Legislature to do so. If voters don’t like that, Chief Justice Herbert Wilkins suggested term limit proponents elect a new Legislature. Easier said than done, since incumbent protections mean that more than half the state’s lawmakers ran unopposed last year. The court’s decision effectively means that 80% of the current Legislature that faced being term-limited out of office in 2002 can stay as long as it wants.

Citizen activists in Massachusetts wonder what kind of democracy they live under. Over the past 15 years, their highest court has repeatedly struck down voter-approved laws to limit Legislature’s pay, perks and length of sessions. "We just have political bodies, except some wear black robes and others wear suits," charges Dorothea Vitrac, who led the fight for term limits.

Undaunted, she and other activists plan to try again in two years to place a constitutional amendment before the state’s imperial Legislature. At that time, whoever is Governor will have the constitutional power to keep the Legislature in session until it votes. In 1992, Governor Weld called legislators into session, but did nothing when they skipped town without voting. We hope his successor makes a greater effort to side with the voters against the pols.

The Massachusetts court’s ruling was based on the state’s peculiar circumstances, and term limit laws in other states continue to be upheld. Still, the irony here is hard to miss. More than 200 years after Massachusetts patriots threw tea into Boston Harbor, their governing betters are telling them that their votes just don’t pass muster.


Citizens for Limited Taxation    PO Box 1147    Marblehead, MA 01945    (781) 639-9709