Stabenow will retire after four terms, but should’ve been term-limited to two

U.S. Supreme Court overruled Michigan Constitution; law says congressional delegation should “voluntarily” follow term limits, but nobody does

At the end of 24 years in the U.S. Senate, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow will retire in 2024, per a report in The Detroit News.

But according to the Michigan Constitution, Stabenow shouldn’t have gotten more than two terms. Her election in 2000 and reelection in 2006 should have been the end of it.

Article II, Section 10 of the Michigan Constitution reads:

No person shall be elected to office as representative in the United States House of Representatives more than three times during any twelve year period. No person shall be elected to office as senator in the United States Senate more than two times during any twenty-four year period. Any person appointed or elected to fill a vacancy in the United States House of Representatives or the United States Senate for a period greater than one half of a term of such office, shall be considered to have been elected to serve one time in that office for purposes of this section. This limitation on the number of times a person shall be elected to office shall apply to terms of office beginning on or after January 1, 1993.

So how was the late Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, able to become the longest-serving congressman in history? He achieved the record in March 2009, after 53 years in office. Based on the Michigan Constitution, Dingell should have had to retire a decade earlier.

And how did Stabenow get four terms? She should’ve only gotten two. The people of Michigan wanted term limits so much that they inserted them in their supreme law. Proposal B of 1992 passed by a comfortable margin on the November ballot, 59% to 31%. It amended the Michigan Constitution.

Then, before the law could ever be applied, the courts stepped in.

Patrick Wright, vice president for legal affairs at the Mackinac Center, says Michigan’s congressional term limits were undone in a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton. The upshot of the case, according to Justia, is that “states cannot impose additional restrictions, such as term limits, on its representatives in the federal government beyond those provided by the Constitution.”

That constitution being the U.S. Constitution. As there are no term limits for Congress therein, Michigan’s term limits law does not apply to its representatives in Washington.

Perhaps anticipating a ruling like U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, article II section 10 ends by saying: “If any part of this section is held to be invalid or unconstitutional, the remaining parts of this section shall not be affected but will remain in full force and effect.”

After the term limits are introduced, section 10 hammers home Michigan's pro-term limits consensus.

“The people of Michigan hereby state their support for the aforementioned term limits for members of the United States House of Representatives and United States Senate and instruct their public officials to use their best efforts to attain such a limit nationwide,” the Michigan Constitution reads.

Quick show of hands: Anyone ever heard a Michigan public official “use their best efforts” to inspire a national interest in congressional term limits? I missed it, too.

The 30 years of time since 1992 have reduced Michigan’s supreme law to a mere suggestion.

Section 10 continues: “The people of Michigan declare that ... their intention is that federal officials elected from Michigan will continue voluntarily to observe the wishes of the people as stated in this section, in the event any provision of this section is held invalid.”

The amendment was written such that even if the law failed a court challenge, it would appeal to the honor of Michigan’s reps in Congress, that they would do the right thing and leave Washington "voluntarily," in line with the wishes of the state. No one has. Not for that reason.

The next time a member of Congress like Fred Upton or Debbie Stabenow retires, remember: They’ve already overstayed their welcome. Three terms for representatives. Two for senators. And that’s it.

Stabenow will retire after four terms as a senator. If she had heeded the will of Michigan, she would have left office voluntarily, years ago.

James David Dickson is managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email him at

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.