Why We Need Term Limits

Shirley Abrahamson has served 39 years. Fred Risser has served 60 years. Maybe that's too long.

By - Jun 25th, 2015 11:59 am
Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Photo by Jake Harper/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Photo by Jake Harper/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

There is another dimension to the federal lawsuit filed by former Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson to keep her chief’s epaulets for a few more years.

It is the broader issue of how long politicians should be allowed to stay in office. Abrahamson has been a justice for 39 years, the longest term is state history. She is the longest serving chief justice in the history of the country at 19 years.

But she is short timer compared to Sen. Fred Risser, a Madison Democrat who has held his safe seat since statehood. Well, that’s an overstatement. It only seems that long. He’s been in the legislature for 60 years, which makes him the longest serving legislator in the history of the United States.

Ironically, Madison is supposed to be the home of progressive thought in the state and country, but holding office for life can only be seen as regressive. Fresh ideas and geriatric political records don’t match up. Do these political dinosaurs use smart phones?

Society gains by using the experience and wisdom of its elders (I have to take that position, because I are one.) But that doesn’t mean they should stay in the same gig for decade after decade. Businesses rotate their executives to keep them from getting stale and the companies on the cutting edge.

Wisconsin legislative leaders and voters got a constitutional amendment passed to correct the automatic award of the chief justice job to the most senior justice.

That’s a step in the right direction, but how about a bolder move? How about term limits on all political jobs at the state level?

Thirty-six states have some limits on governor terms, and 15 limit legislative terms. But, in 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in a 5-4 decision attempts by states to limit congressional terms.

And a GOP-led push in Congress in the 1990s for term limits came close but eventually failed to get enough votes for a constitutional amendment.
Gerrymandered Congressional seas became safer and safer, so there has been no recent push by incumbents to limit their own longevity. Life, pay and perquisites in the seat of power are good.

There are many reasons to follow other states for limits on state offices. For one, term limits blunt some to some extent the impact of big money in elections. You can’t buy a politico for life if there are term limits.

For another, turnover creates the possibility of fresh thinking from the next generations of candidates for office.

The must be something in our water that encourages Wisconsin pols to hang on for decades. Rep. David Obey retired after 42 years in Congress. Rep. Tom Petri stepped down after 38. Rep. James Sensenbrenner has been in office 39 years and counting. They will carry him out. Russ Feingold served for 18 years in the U. S. Senate and 10 years in the Wisconsin legislature. He is now running for another six-year term in the old boys’ club.

The federal fix is in, but there is room for reform at the state level. Two ten-year terms on the Wisconsin Supreme Court should be plenty. The common denominator for legislative tenure in states with term limits is 12 to 14 years. Let’s be progressive and follow their lead.

It’s time for another Wisconsin constitutional amendment.

John Torinus is the chairman of Serigraph Inc. and a former Milwaukee Sentinel business editor who blogs regularly at johntorinus.com.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

6 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Why We Need Term Limits”

  1. TF says:

    In terms of partisan politics, term limits are grossly overrated and, frankly, undemocratic. Madison voters like being represented by Fred Risser, just like mom, grandma, and great-grandma, evidently. So what? And it’s not like Shirley Abrahamson is some kind of dynastic ruler; even she has been reelected numerous times. I can see the merit of having 16-year terms for state Supreme Court justices, but certainly not for other judges (the appeals and circuit courts).

  2. Tom Beebe says:

    And yet those pushing the handle to flush Wiscondin down the toilet are some of the newest and freshest faces. The answer is for Wisconsin’s citizens to get educated, vote, and actually take part in their own lives. Term limits are just a cop out for the intellectually lazy.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Great idea if you want amateurs running the government. Shirley Abrahamson is still at the top of her game, and can out-campaign anyone; that is why some would seek to use other means to get rid of her.

  4. SteveM says:

    Apparently Mr. Torinus doesn’t understand how progress works. It’s not always the young who move things forward quickly. Just ask anyone with a 32 year old living in their basement.

    And the argument that term limits blunt political influence is ridiculous…I feel like Wisconsin is dealing with a really bad one night stand currently.

  5. David Nelson says:

    This commentary by Torinus is transparently political. While he throws a couple GOP names into the mix, only one is currently serving (Sensenbrenner) and that name is not used as a target. Torinus wants Abrahamson and Risser out of office because they don’t reflect his policy preferences. It has nothing to do with sound reasoning based on the perceived negatives of unlimited terms. He just isn’t brave enough to admit his motivation. While I don’t miss the old days when biased folks more frequently shouted their prejudice from the rooftops, I have to admit to squirming through yet another example of bald-faced posturing.

  6. Doug Swanson says:

    Before we go to term limits, that I’m not really opposed too, let’s try non-partisan redistricting first. You might end up with people who are still there a long time, but at least they’ll have to compete for it more often than not. Now in 95% of districts the only competition is inside your own party. Will you advocate for that Mr. Torinus?

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