WASHINGTON (AP) â€” In a decision that will come too late for this Election Day, the Supreme Court will rule on whether states may require congressional candidates to actively support term restrictions or be branded as opponents of the cause on state-issued election ballots.
Supporters say labeling a candidate as for or against term limits will help voters by providing more information. Opponents say the labels are an unconstitutional limit on candidates' free speech and an improper use of the ballot to promote an idea backed by the state government.
``This has been called a 'Scarlet Letter' label,'' Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed Monday. She and several other justices asked plainly skeptical questions of a lawyer for Missouri, which approved the ballot-label plan in 1996.
Justice David Souter asked whether such labels ``put the thumb on the scale,'' against a disobedient candidate. ``It's doing more than informing. It's saying this person has violated a trust,'' Souter said.
The lawyer for Missouri, James R. McAdams, later said that labels might sway some voters, but insisted they still pass constitutional muster.
Also, he said, ballot labels ``could combat, rather effectively, voter disillusionment with the system.''
A decision is expected by summer.
Ballot labels are a reaction to the Supreme Court's 1995 decision striking down state laws on congressional term limits. The court said then that allowing states to adopt term limits would undermine the uniform national character of Congress sought by the framers.
Since then, term limit advocates have pushed unsuccessfully to amend the U.S. Constitution to mandate congressional term limits.
Missouri voters amended their own state constitution in 1996 to obligate the state congressional delegation to work for a national constitutional amendment stipulating 12-year terms for senators and six years for House members.
If a member of Congress fails to aggressively work for the amendment, the words ``Disregarded Voters' Instruction on Term Limits'' appear beside his or her name on the ballot at the next election.
First-time candidates are asked to take a term limit vow. Next to decliners' names appear the words ``Declined to Pledge to Support Term Limits.''
State-imposed limits on how long politicians may serve in office was a national phenomenon in the 1990s. Voters in 23 states signed on to the idea, according to the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits.
Term limits were part of the ``Contract With America'' in the 1994 campaign that gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
Many in the Republican class of '94, including Helen Chenoweth of Idaho and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, kept their pledge and did not seek re-election to a fourth term this year.
A Democratic congressional candidate, Donald Gralike, challenged the Missouri amendment and won in lower courts. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared last year that it violated candidates' free speech rights, unconstitutionally set new qualifications for members of Congress and usurped Congress's power to propose constitutional amendments.
The Clinton administration took Gralike's side in the case, and argued that the labels are pejorative.
In Monday's hour-long arguments, Justices Anthony Kennedy and Ginsburg seemed especially troubled by the labels. They were both in the 5-4 majority when the court struck down term limits five years ago.
Ginsburg noted that there are bans on electioneering at polling places, ``yet when the voters get inside they are hit with this.''
``That somehow seems inconsistent with our notion that the voters should not be bombarded with slogans,'' she said.
The case is Cook v. Gralike, 99-929.
On the Net:
For the appeals court ruling in Gralike v. Cook: http://www.uscourts.gov/links.html and click on 8th Circuit.