North Dakota officials on Friday gave the green light to advocates for term limits to start collecting signatures for a proposed amendment to the state constitution to bar anyone older than 80 from representing the state in Congress. The measure could, however, have a tough time surviving a court challenge, though it joins a long history of conservatives testing the limits of a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that states cannot add further qualifications to candidates for Congress beyond those outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
That 1995 ruling, known as U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, struck down an Arkansas initiative that tried to impose term limits on members of the state's congressional delegation. The court's 5-4 decision, which saw swing Justice Anthony Kennedy join the four liberal justices, explained that the only restrictions states could impose on congressional candidates were the ones spelled out in the nation's governing document: namely, a minimum (but not maximum) age, a minimum period of U.S. citizenship, and residency in the state they're seeking to represent at the time of election. Clarence Thomas, however, wrote a dissent that three fellow conservatives joined, saying he would have allowed Arkansas' law to stand.
Last year, Republicans in Tennessee decided to test whether Thomas' views might now hold sway on the Supreme Court, whose membership is now considerably further to the right than it was three decades ago. The GOP-dominated state legislature imposed a requirement that U.S. House candidates must have voted in the previous three statewide general elections to be eligible to run, a move that seemed to be aimed at blocking Morgan Ortagus, a former State Department spokesperson, from seeking the open 5th Congressional District. (Ortagus had only relocated from D.C. in 2021.)
The bill didn't apply last cycle because Gov. Bill Lee only allowed it to become law after the candidate filing deadline had passed. However, the state GOP's executive committee later used a different state law to eject Ortagus and two others from the ballot for not meeting the party's definition of a "bona fide" Republican. At least two of the plan's proponents, though, had much more than 2022 in mind, as they explicitly said they hoped the Supreme Court would overturn U.S. Term Limits. First, though, a candidate impacted by the law would have to file suit, which has not yet happened.
In North Dakota, meanwhile, organizers are seeking to collect signatures to impose a different requirement that, like Tennessee's, also isn't found in the constitution. The proposed amendment would forbid anyone who would turn 81 before the end of their term from being elected or appointed to Congress. The measure also includes a section saying that, in the event that the courts block this maximum age limit, a "ballot advisory" would appear next to the names of congressional candidates on the ballot informing voters how old they'd be when their term would end.
The effort is being spearheaded by Jared Hendrix, a GOP party official who played a key role in electing and defending members of the legislature's far-right "Bastiat Caucus" (named after the 19th century French economist who championed free markets) and last year helped pass a term-limits measure applying to the governor and state legislators. Hendrix tells the Associated Press' Jack Dura that his group is aiming to get the measure on the June primary ballot rather than wait for next year's general election, saying, "Our plan is to aggressively and quickly gather signatures before cold weather hits."
Hendrix and his allies have until Feb. 12 to turn in about 31,200 signatures, a figure that represents 2% of the state's population (North Dakota is the only state that doesn't have voter registration) in order to meet his timeline; if they submit in their petitions later, the amendment wouldn't go before voters until November 2024. No matter what, though, it would only take a simple majority to pass the proposal at the ballot box.
Congressional elections could experience some major changes coast to coast if the Supreme Court were to chart a new course, but it wouldn't immediately impact any of the three members of the Peace Garden State's all-GOP delegation. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer are 66 and 62, respectively, while Rep. Kelly Armstrong is 46. Of course, many members of Congress have served (or currently serve) into their 80s and even beyond: Texas Rep. Ralph Hall was 91 when his career came to an end, while South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond remained in office until he was 100.