Out with the old

Resistance to term limits only proves we need them.

By Steven Miller
  • Thursday, May 29, 2008

Here's a novel idea.

Instead of fretfully scratching their heads about when Nevada's term limits may or may not kick in, why don't people simply read what the provisions say?

For a dozen years now, Nevada politicians have been obsessed with these few words in the state constitution. And at least in public, many of those pols have been indulging in industrial-strength pretence. To hear them tell it, these tiny pebbles of text are really the huge and mysterious monoliths of Easter Island.

What's really transfixing the politicians, of course, is the question that grips the cobra when the mongoose is near: "Er ... is my string about to run out?"

These are the intense energies that have fueled a Nevada cottage industry second-guessing term limits since voters added them to the state constitution in 1996.

First off the mark, that very autumn, was then-Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa. Even before voters had passed the limits a second and final time she was slandering those provisions from the privileged platform of an official attorney general opinion. "Vague and ambiguous," she said.

However, as former deputy attorney general Chuck Gardner demonstrated in a watershed 2001 Las Vegas Review-Journal article, the truth was the exact opposite.

Del Papa, he also noted in passing, had had a direct conflict of interest on the core issue itself when she published the opinion. Under any common-sense interpretation, the term limits amendment would have barred her from seeking another term as Attorney General. That was something she wanted to do – and would do, subsequently, in 1998.

Del Papa told Nevadans that the limitations did not say when to start counting the terms. "But that's exactly what they do," responded Gardner. He recited the key text the amendment regularly repeated – whether referring to legislators or other elected officials:

No person may be elected [to such office] who has served in that office, or at the expiration of his current term if he is so serving will have served, 12 years or more....

"No ambiguity here," observed Gardner. He then turned to the constitutional-officer provisions:

No person may be elected [as attorney general, secretary of state, controller, or treasurer] ... more than once if he has previously held the office by election or appointment.

"No ambiguity here, either," Gardner continued. "This was precisely crafted to leave nothing to chance and was aimed squarely at someone in Del Papa's position....

"But according to Del Papa, term limits for legislators would not go into effect for another 12 years, and for state officers such as herself, not for another 10 years, later. This would come as a great surprise to those who voted for the initiative or to anyone who has ever read it.

"Del Papa argued that, since the term limit laws don't tell us what to do with incumbents, applying the 1996 term limits to an election six years later would be improperly retroactive. The notion is not only mindless and in contradiction to what we experience as the forward progression of time, but has been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court for more than 70 years. Our own Nevada Supreme Court has seen through this nonsense. Exactly like the law that increases the penalty for a third domestic battery, the term limit laws take into account past events or present status, but are sought to be applied to the next event, not the last one."

Ever since the fall of 1996, Nevada's political power mongers and their media camp-followers have pretended that the word "current," in 1994 and 1996, had no discernible meaning. Voters, however, subscribed to no such theory. They knew quite well that "current" meant current and that the new term limits applied to politicians then – currently – in office.

Nevertheless, because most Nevada citizens have better things to do in life than parse the latest frauds from our busy-bee political thimble-riggers, this ruse, as a practical matter, was allowed to succeed. Today, as a result, Silver State scamsters beat the bushes daily for some new fraud that will allow permanent escape from the voters' best judgment.

The nationwide movement to place term limits on elected officials was a direct response to a widely recognized problem: that today, as throughout history, self-interested corruption and systemic malfeasance ensues when human beings hold power – with its deeply addictive and corrosive effects – too long.

Ultimately, what the power mongers' chicanery around the topic of term limits reveals is nothing so much as ... the need for term limits.

Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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