Ohio Supreme Court rules congressional map unconstitutional

·5 min read

Jan. 14—The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Friday the state's new U.S. congressional district maps were invalid gerrymandering, ordering the Ohio General Assembly to draw a new plan in the next 30 days.

It was the second loss for Republican-drawn maps this week. On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled against the state House and state Senate boundaries, saying those also were improperly drawn to favor Republicans. In that ruling, the justices gave the Ohio Redistricting Commission 10 days to come up with new ones.

The 4-3 decision Friday invalidated a bill by the General Assembly that redrew the state's 15 U.S. congressional districts, saying the map violated the Ohio Constitution's gerrymandering prohibitions overwhelmingly supported by voters in 2018.

In the court majority, Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote the General Assembly "did not heed the clarion call sent by Ohio voters to stop political gerrymandering."

"The bill resulted in districts in which undue political bias is — whether viewed through the lens of expert statistical analysis or by application of simple common sense — at least as if not more likely to favor Republican candidates than the 2011 reapportionment that impelled Ohio's constitutional reforms," he continued.

The majority also stated that lawmakers improperly split Hamilton, Cuyahoga and Summit counties.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and Justices Melody Stewart and Jennifer Brunner joined Donnelly's opinion.

Justices Sharon Kennedy, Patrick Fischer and R. Patrick DeWine formed the dissent in a jointly written opinion. They wrote that the majority justices over-stepped their authority and failed to provide a "workable standard about what it means to unduly favor a political party or divide a county."

"No doubt, there are those who will be quite happy about the policy choices that the majority makes today," they wrote. "But no one should lose sight of the fact that what the majority does today is make policy, not apply the law."

"It is impossible to draw a map with equally populated districts that contains fewer county splits and still meets the other criteria of the amendment," the dissenting opinion read. "So what the majority is essentially saying is: We don't like the legislature's choices of counties to divide; it should have divided different ones. But that's a matter of policy preference — it has nothing to do with the law."

Chief Justice O'Connor, a Republican, was the swing vote on the court's decision.

The maps were signed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in November after passing through the General Assembly over objection from Democrats. Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, at the time called the maps "both constitutional and competitive." Huffman sits on the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

Ohio Redistricting Commission Co-Chair state Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, opposed the GOP-crafted map and applauded the Supreme Court's decision.

"The Court's ruling today is another victory that gives Ohioans the opportunity to get the fair districts and fair maps they advocated for," Sykes said in a statement Friday. "While the gerrymandered plan passed by the majority in November diluted the voting power of racial minorities and Democrats, we now have a chance to create a congressional map that better reflects the diversity in our state and that follows the constitutional requirements overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2018."

Swift praise came also came from the ACLU of Ohio, League of Women Voters of Ohio, Common Cause Ohio, and the Equal Districts Coalition.

"We call on the Ohio General Assembly to do what voters and the Ohio Supreme court expect: draw a map that keep communities together and represents the right of every Ohio voter to have fair districts," said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, in a statement.

The Supreme Court ruling puts the process back in the hands of the Republican-dominated General Assembly to come up with a new map addressing the legal defects identified by the court. If the General Assembly fails to do so within 30 days, the Ohio Redistricting Commission is reconstituted and has another 30 days to adopt a compliant plan.

Republican members of the Redistricting Commission — including the House speaker, Senate president, governor, state auditor and secretary of state — did not immediately respond Friday to the court's ruling. Officials representing Gov. DeWine and GOP majorities in both the House and Senate said Friday they are reviewing the court's decision.

The Ohio Supreme Court sided with critics who contended the maps unfairly favored Republicans and unfairly split three Democratic counties — Hamilton, Summit and Cuyahoga — among multiple districts.

In the majority opinion, Donnelly wrote: "When the dealer stacks the deck in advance, the house usually wins. That perhaps explains how a party that generally musters no more than 55% of the statewide popular vote is positioned to reliably win anywhere from 75% to 80% of the seats in the Ohio congressional delegation. By any rational measure, that skewed result just does not add up."

Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, whose National Redistricting Action Fund supported the lawsuit against the maps, said the court actions this week underline the need to pass federal voting reforms.

"Ohio's constitutional reforms show the power and effectiveness of the law by providing a recourse to the people and a check on politicians who attempt to gerrymander maps," Holder said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, also released a statement: "Republican politicians in Columbus should have followed the constitutional mandate that voters gave them. Columbus Republicans need to stop wasting taxpayer money and time, and start working for Ohioans."

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