Constitutional Law I, Pages 152–158

U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton

Supreme Court of the United States, 1995


Arkansas voters modified their constitution to set a limit on their candidates for Congress of three terms for the House of Representatives and two terms for the Senate by prohibiting their names to appear on the general election ballot thereafter.

Procedural History:

Arkansas Supreme Court held that the amendment violated the Federal Constitution.


  • Does the Constitution prohibit states from imposing additional requirements for congressional service?

  • If so, is it significant that this amendment restricted ballot access rather than outright disqualify?


The Tenth Amendment does not apply here because the power to add qualifications is not within the "original powers" of the States, so it cannot be reserved to them. Even if they did, the Framers intended the Constitution to be the exclusive source of qualifications for members of Congress, so they thereby divested States of the power to add qualifications. The Constitution expressly requires States to prescribe "the Times, Places, and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives" and to "appoint [presidential] Electors." This demonstrates that it delegated these powers to the states, rather than being reserved by the states.

Allowing Arkansas's amendment would undermine the uniformity that the Framers envisioned. Any contention that restricting ballot access is still permissible is merely an indirect attempt to accomplish what the Constitution prohibits and is thus likewise prohibited.


States cannot impose additional requirements for congressional service, even if only by restricting ballot access. Affirmed.

Dissenting Opinion:

Thomas: The Constitution only allows the people of one state to choose who Arkansas picks as its representatives. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits the people of each state from prescribing eligibility requirements for its candidates. The Tenth Amendment does not just reserve powers affirmatively granted. All the Constitution's power stems from the people of each individual state. These people ceded some of their power to the federal government, affirmatively depriving themselves of some power by giving it to the federal government; but powers not so delegated remain in the hands of the people unless given to state governments.

To invalidate the amendment, something in the Constitution would have to deprive the people of Arkansas of the power to enact such measures. No such deprivation exists. The selection of representatives in Congress is an act of the people of each state, not the nation as a whole. The Constitution does not give any method of election by the general people of America.

The Time, Places, and Manner Clause does not delegate any authority to the States. It just imposes a duty upon them. Imposing an affirmative duty on the states is not inconsistent with the notion of reserved powers. If the clause did not exist, the states could still prescribe the times, places, and manner of holding congressional elections; Congress could just not override these state regulations.

The Qualifications Clauses are merely minimum eligibility requirements. The only way they restrict the states is by requiring that they enforce at least these requirements. They do not prevent states from enacting more strict requirements.

Furthermore, the majority's decision will mean that states can no longer disqualify candidates who are found to be mentally incompetent, in prison, or have been convicted of voter fraud, as some states already require. Likewise, states must allow people to run for Congress even when they have removed their right to vote for congressional candidates, like Rhode Island does. The decision reads the Qualifications Clauses to impose substantial implicit prohibitions on the States and the people thereof. It should be read to only do what it says.