Term limits question hits high court

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A day before elections, the Supreme Court heard a dispute Monday over a ballot issue that has fallen out of fashion in many states — term limits.

The court is expected to decide by summer whether states can require congressional candidates to actively support term restrictions or be branded as opponents of the cause on state-issued election ballots.

"This has been called a ‘Scarlet Letter’ label," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed Monday. She and several other justices asked plainly skeptical questions of an attorney for Missouri, which approved the ballot-label plan in 1996.

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.

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 attorney for Missouri, James 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."

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.

On Monday, the court also:

  • Heard arguments on whether employers can require workers to resolve labor disputes through arbitration rather than litigation. The case involves a man who quit Circuit City Stores Inc. after co-workers harassed him out of suspicion he is gay. The man initially lost in court because he had agreed to arbitration when he was hired. Arbitration is the preferred method of settling disputes for a growing number of companies, so the case is being watched closely by civil rights and business groups.

  • Agreed to use an international investment dispute to clarify whether an oral agreement to sell stock options is enforceable under a 1934 federal securities law.

  • Declined to clarify whether prosecutors may claim different versions of the same events at the criminal trials of separate defendants.

  • Stayed out of a dispute over how much leeway local governments have to control cellular telephone companies’ installation of antennas to broaden their service areas.

  • Agreed to decide whether The New York Times and other publications violate free-lance contributors’ copyrights by putting their articles in electronic databases.

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