eunuch rule

eunuch rule

The “eunuch rule” is a reference to the provisions in many state constitutions which prevented state governors from running for a second consecutive term in office. Those provisions have been amended in almost every state; as of 2020, Virginia is the only state which still prevents governors from holding two consecutive terms in office.

The rules on gubernatorial qualifications, succession, and term length are decided on a state-by-state basis. In most states, governors serve a four-year term and may serve back-to-back terms; however, they may be limited to a number of consecutive or lifetime terms.

The “eunuch rule” got its name because, in theory, it put the incumbent governor in a weak position (like that of a eunuch, with no real power). William Safire wrote:

In most states, particularly in the South, governors are rendered politically impotent – LAME DUCKS from the moment they enter the Statehouse – by the eunuch rule. This was designed to prevent four-year governors from building long-lasting machines…Whenever the eunuch rule applies, the governor starts thinking about (1) running for senator, (2) laying the groundwork for a career in private business, or (3) “modernizing the state constitution to permit reelection.

Historically, politicians have gone to great lengths to get around the “eunuch rule.” In 1966 George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, was nearing the end of his term. Alabama’s state laws prevented him from seeking a second term in office, and so Wallace decided to put his wife, Lurleen, on the ballot instead. 

Lurleen Wallace beat out 10 opponents in the Democratic primary and also defeated her Republican opponent, James Douglas Martin. She became the first female governor of Alabama. Lurleen’s working class roots helped to make her very popular in the state. Like her husband, Lurleen actively opposed desegregation efforts. She is also remembered, though, for her efforts to improve mental health care and for her work to expand state parks and recreational facilities. 

Today, Virginia is the only state which prevents governors from succeeding themselves. There is an ongoing effort to amend the state’s constitution so that governors can serve consecutive terms. That state tends to be popular among Democrats, who have won recent gubernatorial elections; many Republicans oppose the proposed amendments.

In 2019, Dawn Adams, a Democrat from Richmond, sponsored House Joint Resolution 608, which would amend the state constitution to let governors elected after 2021 serve for two terms in a row. Adams described the current system as a “detriment to the commonwealth.” “She told Delmarva Now, “Now is the time we should look to pass a constitutional amendment for consecutive but limited governor terms.” Adams also noted that the current system leads to “inefficiency, waste, duplication of services, low morale and low productivity.”

However, Republicans in Virginia said the term limit is a much-need check to the strong power of the executive; Virginia’s governor has the power to amend and veto bills, appoint officials and order a special legislative session. Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, a Republican, said a big argument against the proposed change was also that he wouldn’t have wanted recent governors to stay in power for more than four years.

Said Norment: “I would very succinctly and ecumenically say two words: Gilmore and McAuliffe.”