Time Machine Tuesday: History of Term Limits in Colorado

In the 143 years that Colorado has been a state, the laws regarding terms of office for elected officials have changed several times. In fact, the term limits in use today are relatively recent. This article provides an overview of some of the major changes to Colorado’s laws regarding term limits, which can be found in the State Constitution.

Executive Branch

For much of Colorado’s history, the governor and other statewide elected officials served two-year terms, as specified in the original 1876 Constitution. Attempts to change the terms to four years were defeated by voters in 1922 and 1954. However, just two years later, in 1956, voters approved a measure giving four-year terms to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, State Auditor, State Treasurer, and Attorney General. (The State Auditor was changed to an appointed position in 1965. Joint election of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor began in 1970).

The 1956 law did not, however, limit how many consecutive terms these elected officials could serve. It wasn’t until 1990 that voters passed Amendment 5 which, effective January 1, 1991, limited statewide elected officials to two terms with a maximum of eight years in office. Colorado was one of the first states, along with California and Oklahoma, to pass a citizen-initiated amendment requiring term limits.

Legislative Branch

Amendment 5, which passed overwhelmingly with 71% of voters affirming, also placed limits on the number of consecutive terms for state legislators. As of January 1, 1991, Senators and Representatives are both limited to eight years in office; Senators are elected every four years for a maximum of two terms, while Representatives are elected every two years for a maximum of four terms.

Judicial Branch

In 1966 Colorado voters passed Amendment 3, which addresses the selection and retention of judges. Under this amendment, all Colorado judges (except for judges of the Denver County Court) are appointed by the Governor. Judges do not have limits on the numbers of terms they can serve, but the State Constitution requires that at the end of each term they must be retained by the voters. A state commission on judicial performance, established in 1988, evaluates judges and provides voters with recommendations on whether they should be retained. The legislature or state Supreme Court can also remove judges, but this is rare. Most judges serve until their retirement – Colorado has a mandatory retirement age of 72 for judges.

Other offices

In 1994, Colorado voters passed Amendment 17 to limit Colorado’s U.S. Congressional Representatives to two terms. However, the United States Supreme Court struck down the measure, ruling in 1995’s U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton that it was unconstitutional for states to impose limits on members of congress that were stricter than the U.S. Constitution. In 1996, in response to the ruling, Colorado voters passed Amendment 12, which would call for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution and required Colorado’s Senators and Representatives to vote for ratification. (This section was repealed in 2002.) In 1998 one more attempt was made toward limiting the terms of U.S. Senators and Representatives from Colorado. This time, Amendment 18 allowed congressional candidates to voluntarily declare, and have it shown by their name on the ballot, that they would agree to serve no more than three terms in the House or two terms in the Senate.

Although the portion of 1994’s Amendment 17 regarding Congressional term limits was struck down, there were other parts of the amendment that did succeed. Under the amendment, members of the State Board of Education, the Regents of the University of Colorado, and local elected officials are limited to two consecutive terms. Unlike Initiative 5 in 1990, Amendment 17 passed by a very slim margin, 51% to 49%.

For resources on Colorado laws, ballot history, and constitutional amendments, see

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