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Ohio Supreme Court Rejects New Congressional Maps
Justices Had Previously Ordered State Legislative District Maps Redrawn

January 14, 2022 by Dan McCue
Ohio Supreme Court Rejects New Congressional Maps
Members of the Ohio Senate Government Oversight Committee hear testimony on a new map of state congressional districts in this file photo from Nov. 16, 2021, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Supreme Court rejected a Republican-drawn congressional map on Friday, giving hope to national Democrats who had argued it unfairly delivered several potentially competitive seats in this year’s critical midterm elections to Republicans.

In the 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court returned the map to the Ohio General Assembly, where Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers, and then to the powerful Ohio Redistricting Commission.

The two bodies have a combined 60 days to draw new lines that comply with a 2018 constitutional amendment against gerrymandering.

The commission was already in the process of redrawing GOP-drawn legislative maps the court rejected in a 4-3 decision handed down on Wednesday.

Writing for the majority, Justice Michael Donnelly wrote, “(T)he evidence in these cases makes clear beyond all doubt that the General Assembly did not heed the clarion call sent by Ohio voters to stop political gerrymandering.”

Donnelly and the court’s other two Democrats were joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, the only Republican on the court to side with the three Democratic justices, making her the swing vote.

The court’s three other Republicans — including Justice Pat DeWine, son of Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, a named plaintiff in the cases — raised their objections in joint dissent that did not identify its author.

In it, the three said it was unclear how it should be determined that a map “unduly favors” one party over another.

“When the majority says that the plan unduly favors the Republican Party, what it means is that the plan unduly favors the Republican Party as compared to the results that would be obtained if we followed a system of proportional representation,” the dissent said.

In striking down state House and Senate district maps approved by the Ohio Redistricting Commission earlier this week, the justices also declared them partisan gerrymanders that violated the state constitution.

The court then went on to say the commission, which is dominated by Republicans, can not ignore those parts of the state constitution that require them to at least try to create districts that reflect statewide voting preferences.

Writing for the majority, Justice Melody Stewart said over the past decades, those preferences tend to lean Republican, but only by a little, 54%-46%.

“The commission is required to attempt to draw a plan in which the statewide proportion of Republican-leaning districts to Democratic-leaning districts closely corresponds to those percentages,” Stewart wrote.

The majority also rejected assertions made by Senate President Matt Huffman, House Speaker Bob Cupp and others that redistricting language added to the state constitution in 2015 after a public referendum was only “aspirational,” a word that comes up 14 times in the 146-page opinion.

“We reject the notion that Ohio voters rallied so strongly behind an anti-gerrymandering amendment to the Ohio Constitution yet believed at the time that the amendment was toothless,” Stewart wrote.

Voters approved the amendment revising the state’s redistricting process with 71% of the vote.

The justices directed the commission to submit new redistricting maps to the court within 10 days. And time is of essence as the current deadline for filing paperwork to run for the state legislature is Feb. 2.

The filing date for congressional candidates is March 4.

Among the more interesting aspects of the decision is a concurring opinion penned by Chief Justice O’Connor.

“Having now seen firsthand that the current Ohio Redistricting Commission — comprised of statewide elected officials and partisan legislators — is seemingly unwilling to put aside partisan concerns as directed by the people’s vote,” O’Connor said. 

“Ohioans may opt to pursue further constitutional amendment to replace the current commission with a truly independent, nonpartisan commission that more effectively distances the redistricting process from partisan politics,” she concluded.

In a written statement, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said he would work with fellow Ohio Redistricting Commission members on revised maps “that are consistent with the court’s order.”

Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project called Wednesday’s ruling “a huge victory for voting rights.”

“This decision sends a clear message that district maps are not to be manipulated to the detriment of voters or for political gain,” she said.

Likewise, Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, thanked the court for “standing with voters and defending our democracy by ordering the drawing of new Ohio Senate and Ohio House districts.

“Now we call on the Ohio Redistricting Commission to do what voters and the Ohio Supreme court expect: draw maps that keep communities together and represent the right of every Ohio voter to have fair districts,” she said.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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