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April 23, 2014

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Jon Ralston says if term limits is voters’ drug of choice, let them have it

Term limits, the morphine for the pained voter, providing temporary relief from symptoms but no cure for the disease, has returned to the forefront of Nevada politics.

And it is making me sick.

Not simply because I disdain the very idea that an arbitrary limit — in this case, 12 years — will do anything more than soothe an anesthetized electorate, rendered senseless by crimes and misdemeanors made to look like crimes. I have accepted that.

But less than a week before the state Supreme Court holds a hearing that will lead to a resolution of thorny legal issues surrounding term limits here, what pains me the most is that politicians and their agents are trying to overturn the will of the people, who have a constitutional right to be misguided. Worse, even though many of the opponents’ legal arguments are sound, these means do not justify an end that could cause more disaffection and alienation in the electorate should term limits be perverted or overturned.

The high court will decide three pressing items: Whether a small group of elected officials sworn into office in 1997 are term-limited, whether state lawmakers, who constitutionally take office the day after they are elected, are term-limited if they were serving in 1996, and whether the proposition itself is constitutional.

The very fact that the justices have the temerity to take up the constitutional question has caused proponents to froth. U.S. Term Limits boss Philip Blumel, in an op-ed gleefully published by the Las Vegas Sun’s wrapping paper and then widely disseminated, perfectly encapsulates how infuriating the current debate is with innuendo about “back-room politics” guiding the court, which many will believe, and the disingenuous claim that the court is somehow reversing itself by considering the constitutionality of the initiative that passed in 1996 after a similar version passed in 1994.

Although Blumel is right that the court’s actions have the stench of political shenanigans, he has the wrong justices. The real story here is that the 1996 incarnation of the high court is to blame for the current mess.

Here’s why: The Constitution mandates that amendments are enacted if passed once and then presented to voters “at the next succeeding general election in the same manner as such question was originally submitted.”

That language is plain. And what’s also obvious is the question was not submitted in 1996 “in the same manner” as it was in 1994 because the Supreme Court allowed a front group for judges to persuade it to split off the robed deities into a separate question (which failed). That the justices had the gall to write that even after their significant change, “this meets the constitutional requirement that the ballot question be resubmitted to the voters ‘in the same manner,’ ” makes matters only worse now.

This is not, as Blumel would have it, “a contrived legal technicality.” But it’s also too late to convince anyone that the current court should correct the previous court’s disingenuous and self-interested behavior.

That’s because it has its own disingenuous and self-interested behavior to conduct: Judges whose predecessors argued they should not be subjected to the laws of mere mortals nevertheless have to run for office and thus are subject to the whims of mere mortals who vote. Indeed as the circus atmosphere intensifies, national handicapper Mike Warren has set the odds at 10-1 against any justice who tries to overturn term limits.

Alas, ’tis so. And I doubt any of the justices will risk political oblivion for this — or even if they should, considering the backlash that would ensue.

As much as I admire some of them and as much as I regret that “experience” has become a dirty word in this world, I also see it as debasing that longtime elected officials are grasping at legal straws to try to stay in office. Wailing about the late timing of challenges filed by the secretary of state, or splitting hairs about when someone is sworn in versus when they take office, make voters think only that they are playing in a game whose outcome is rigged.

Capriciously limiting elected officials’ terms is a hollow, demagogic idea, almost as fatuous as allowing judges to run for office, the factor that may determine this case. It’s much more difficult to attack the system’s disease with a real vaccine — more openness, though more rapid disclosure of contributions on the Internet would be a primary reform.

But it’s what the public wants, so start the term limits drip. The electorate will not feel any pain — at least not until voters realize it’s only masked for a while until the symptoms slowly return.

Jon Ralston hosts the news discussion program “Face to Face With Jon Ralston” on Las Vegas ONE and publishes the daily e-mail newsletter “RalstonFlash.com.”

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