The term limit issue has been sweeping the country. Since 1990, voters in 15 states have used the petition and referendum process to impose term limits on their state legislators.

Earlier this year in Illinois, term limit supporters filed 437,088 petition signatures from almost every county calling for a statewide referendum on term limits. The proposed “Eight is Enough” constitutional amendment would limit state legislators to no more than eight years in the General Assembly.

Illinois voters are fed up with the callous unresponsiveness of entrenched political insiders. At a time when the state has monumental budget problems and is in serious need of meaningful tax reform, most Illinois General Assembly members are more concerned with giving themselves a pay raise. Illinois Senate President James “Pate” Philip, a 28-year incumbent earning $55,420, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “We are so grossly underpaid it’s unbelievable.” With Philip’s support, most lawmakers voted to award themselves a 9 percent pay raise, in addition to cost-of-living allowances. This is the kind of political-insider government we can do without in Illinois, and voters who support limiting elected officials to no more than eight years in the same office do so as a rational means to get new people with fresh ideas in government.

In a statewide opinion poll published recently by the Chicago Tribune, nearly 70 percent of voters said they would vote in support of the term limit amendment if it appeared on the ballot in November. But in the midst of all this support for change, the Chicago Bar Association (CBA)—a registered lobby group of 21,000 lawyers—rushed forward to protect the political status quo. The CBA filed a lawsuit to block the Eight is Enough term limit referendum from appearing on the November 1994 ballot statewide.

Interestingly, the CBA also lobbied the General Assembly in support of a pay raise for judges. On the same day that the legislators approved the judicial pay raise, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to hear the CBA challenge to the term limit referendum. Six weeks later, on August 10, in a 4-3 split decision, the Illinois Supreme Court denied voters the chance to vote on the term limit referendum this November. In a cowardly action, the court refused to explain why it will not allow Illinois voters the chance to participate fully in the democratic process.

Illinois is the first state in the nation to reject term limits before the people have had a chance to vote on the issue. The Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling against the Eight is Enough referendum is a slap in the faces of more than six million voters and is an insult to the highest ideals of democracy. The court’s majority ruling ignores the fact that the Illinois Constitution clearly gives voters the right to reform their legislature. The constitution provides citizens with the power of initiative and referendum. The authors of our state constitution wanted voters to be able to propose changes to the legislature in cases where, through self-interest, the General Assembly opposed them.

Accordingly, the dissenting justices soundly refused the Chicago Bar Association’s claim that the Eight is Enough proposal was not a suitable subject for a citizen-initiated referendum. Justice Moses Harrison, with Justices James Heiple and Benjamin Miller joining him in dissenting from the majority opinion, writes, “Section 3 of article XIV reserved to the people of this State the right to advance this amendment and to vote on it. . . . Democracy should be permitted to take its course, as the drafters of our constitution intended. To hold that the law mandates a contrary result is a fiction that venerates the power of our incumbent legislators and demeans the intelligence of their constituents.” In an editorial published August 24, the Wall Street journal said, “The court’s decision reeks of politics. . . . Term limits is the fourth initiative affecting the Legislature it has removed from the ballot.”

The term limit issue needs to be decided at the ballot box. In losing the right to vote on this referendum, Illinois voters are losing ownership of their government. If this ruling is allowed to stand, Illinois will not have a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” What we will continue to have is a government of the incumbents, by the lawyers, and for the lobbyists.