Pictured is the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center where the Ohio Supreme Court meets. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons..

BY: SUSAN TEBBEN – Ohio Capital Journal

For the second time, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected a map for congressional districts in the state.

The court ruled that the map violated the constitution by favoring one political party over another irrespective of election results across the state.

“We hold that the March 2 plan unduly favors the Republican Party and disfavors the Democratic Party in violation of the (Ohio Constitution),” the majority decision reads.

The 4-3 decision reflected the other decisions the court has made on redistricting: Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor voted to reject the maps, along with Justice Michael Donnelly, Justice Melody Stewart and Justice Jennifer Brunner. Justices Sharon Kennedy, Patrick DeWine and Patrick Fischer all dissented in the case.

In ruling against the partisanship in the congressional map, the court called out the commission for creating Democratic districts with razor-thin advantages, while the Republican-leaning seats “comfortably favor Republican candidates.”

In the most recent congressional map, only three Democratic-leaning seats have more than 52% Dem advantage, whereas all Republican-leaning seats have more than 53% GOP advantage.

“Considering that Democratic candidates have received about 47% of the vote in recent statewide elections, this probable outcome represents only a modest improvement over the (previously) invalidated plan,” according to the court decision.

The court pushed back against arguments made by Ohio Redistricting Commission members, including Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Bob Cupp, both of whom have left the commission since then, replaced by state Sen. Rob McColley and state Rep. Jeff LaRe.

The legislative leaders and their replacements on the commission tried to argue they were not obligated to correct “legal defects” in the original congressional plan while revising the plan.

“The commission’s constitutional duty is to adopt a congressional district plan to replace the original, invalidated plan,” the court majority wrote. “Indeed, the commission has a constitutional duty to remedy the defects in the previous plan.”

Huffman, Cupp, McColley and LaRe said fixing the “defects” would “incentivize” Democrats to vote against the plan, and called the article setting forth anti-gerrymandering rules a “safety valve of sorts” for the ORC to adopt a plan that didn’t have to align with the same redistricting rules as the General Assembly.

“No constitutional language suggests that the voters who approved Article XIX intended to allow the prohibitions against partisan favoritism and unduly splitting governmental units to be avoided so easily,” the majority ruled.

The lawsuit was filed in March, after the Ohio Supreme Court turned down calls to reject the maps in a previous lawsuit on congressional redistricting. The court said because its previous decision to reject the first congressional map was final, challengers had to file a new lawsuit to challenge the second version.

The supreme court rejected the first map on the same grounds as the second rejection: partisan favoritism.

In their dissent to the majority decision, Kennedy and Patrick DeWine said they would have left the plan in place as constitutional and allow its use for the 2024 primary and general elections.

Kennedy and DeWine said because they would have held that the first congressional map “did not unduly favor Republicans and was constitutional,” they would have done the same for the second plan.

DeWine, who is Gov. Mike DeWine’s son, has recused himself from any court cases regarding holding the ORC members in contempt of court due to his father’s participation as a commission member. However, he has refused calls for his recusal in all redistricting cases because of his father’s involvement in the process.

Fischer joined the dissent, but wrote separately to argue that map challengers “do not even meet the lower clear-and-convincing evidence burden of proof or the even lower preponderance-of-the-evidence burden of proof” that the second congressional map unduly favored Republicans.

He also criticized the process conducted by the state supreme court, saying a lack of hearings “undoubtedly raises concerns among the public regarding this court’s lack of transparency.”

“This court’s misguided rush to decide these cases has resulted in an unnecessary and truncated procedure that has effectively tied this court’s hands and rendered it unable to make a fully informed decision,” Fischer wrote.

The court gave the General Assembly 30 days to pass a new map, and if they can’t, the Ohio Redistricting Commission will have another 30 days to do so.

Since the May primary, which included congressional races, already occurred, a new congressional plan’s impact will go forward to 2024 elections.

The legislature is currently on summer break, set to come back in the fall. Huffman’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling, or if they would be reconvening the GA early to deal with the issue.

A spokesperson for Cupp said the office was reviewing the decision.

The ORC’s co-chair, Democratic state Sen. Vernon Sykes joined Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko in saying the court “made it clear that Republicans have repeatedly used the redistricting process to give themselves an unfair advantage.”

“Once again, we are ready to follow the law and give Ohioans the fair maps they demanded,” Sykes and Yuko said in a statement. “We hope this time our Republican colleagues will join us, instead of trying to run out the clock.”

A spokesperson Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, the state’s chief elections officer and a member of the redistricting commission, said LaRose’s office had received the ruling and had a legal team reviewing the decision.

The League of Women Voters, one of the two parties who challenged the congressional maps, praised the decision and hoped for swift and public action to adopt new congressional maps.

“We agree that the congressional map is beyond a reasonable doubt gerrymandered, and we stand ready to work with the mapmakers to see a map produced that truly upholds the will of the voters for a free and fair election,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the LWV of Ohio.

Follow OCJ Reporter Susan Tebben on Twitter.

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

Your comments can change our community

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.