The Ohio Supreme Court struck down GOP-drawn state House and Senate district maps as unconstitutional gerrymandering in a 4-3 decision Wednesday, sending the maps back to the drawing board.
Advocates of redistricting reform hailed the decision as a resounding victory for Ohio voters who overwhelmingly approved changes to the state constitution to limit partisan line-drawing in 2015.
“This ruling sends a clear message to lawmakers in Ohio: they may not put politics over people,” said attorney Freda Levenson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, who argued for opponents of the maps.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the Ohio Redistricting Commission – which is tasked with drawing legislative maps and dominated by Republicans – could not ignore parts of the Ohio Constitution that required them to attempt to match the statewide voting preferences of voters, according to the court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Melody Stewart.
Those preferences, according to Stewart’s opinion, were 54% for Republican candidates and 46% for Democratic candidates over the past decade.
“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. “Section 6 speaks not of desire but of direction: the commission shall attempt to achieve the standards of that section.”
Stewart rejected the argument from commission members Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Bob Cupp that the language was “aspirational” and required only if other, more technical, line-drawing requirements weren’t met.
“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.
The commission must now get to work. The new plan must be adopted within 10 days, and the Ohio Supreme Court retains its authority to review any rewrites.
Feb. 2 is the current deadline to file paperwork to run for the Ohio Legislature. State lawmakers could change that filing date without moving the May 3 primary.
‘The plan’s result was by design’
On Sept. 16, Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission approved maps that would allow the GOP to retain its veto-proof majority in the state Legislature over the objections of the commission’s two Democrats.
According to Huffman, R-Lima, the maps could give Republicans a 62-37 advantage in the House and 23-10 advantage in the Senate.
Republicans justified their maps by saying voters preferred GOP candidates between 54% and 81% of the time. Those figures are the average percentage of votes GOP candidates received in recent statewide elections and the percent of statewide races won by Republicans over the past decade, respectively.
Stewart pointed to several examples of why the commission made an inadequate attempt to match statewide voting preferences. The commission had no employees and initially allocated $150,000 to each chamber. No money was given to the statewide officials on the panel – Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Auditor Keith Faber – to help with mapmaking.
And there’s the fact that the mapmakers – GOP staffers Ray DiRossi and Blake Springhetti – reported to legislative leaders Huffman and Cupp, respectively, and not the commission at large.
“The evidence here demonstrates that Senate President Huffman and House Speaker Cupp controlled the process of drawing the maps that the commission ultimately adopted,” Stewart wrote.
Three lawsuits were filed against the maps at the Ohio Supreme Court, claiming GOP mapmakers disregarded a section of voter-approved changes to the Ohio Constitution that required them to attempt to match voters’ political preferences. They argued that the maps gave Republicans an unfair and unearned advantage.
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As part of those lawsuits, Dr. Kosuke Imai, a professor at Harvard University, created 5,000 possible district plans. None was as favorable to Republicans as the one adopted by the Ohio Redistricting Commission.
“The fact that the adopted plan is an outlier among 5,000 simulated plans is strong evidence that the plan’s result was by design,” she wrote.
Stewart also rejected the notion that voters frustrated by the maps had no recourse but to vote out members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission at the next election.
“The notion that the voters who overwhelmingly approved the amendment of Article XI meant to hinge the eradication of partisan gerrymandering on the election of various officeholders simply holds no water,” she wrote.
3 GOP justices dissent
Justice Sharon Kennedy, a Republican who is running for chief justice, wrote in a dissenting opinion that the court did not have the constitutional authority to send the maps back.
She and Justice Pat DeWine, who signed on to her dissent, argued that the section in Ohio’s constitution that says no plan “shall be drawn primarily to favor or disfavor a political party” doesn’t have the same enforcement mechanisms as other sections. Pat DeWine is the governor’s son.
“The majority today, though, finds the constitutionally imposed limits unduly constraining, so it chooses to disregard them,” Kennedy wrote.
Justice Pat Fischer wrote, in a separate opinion: “The majority opinion is unreasonably, unabashedly, and unlawfully altering the Ohio Constitution.”
What comes next
The court ordered the Ohio Redistricting Commission to draw new maps.
Gov. Mike DeWine, in a statement, said he would work with fellow Ohio Redistricting Commission members on revised maps “that are consistent with the Court’s order.”
Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, called on commission members to “draw maps that keep communities together and represent the right of every Ohio voter to have fair districts.”
The Ohio Supreme Court is also reviewing the GOP-drawn congressional map, which was challenged by two lawsuits. A ruling on that map is still pending.
Earlier in the day, U.S. District Court Judge John Adams placed a federal case challenging state and congressional maps on hold for 60 days while the Ohio Supreme Court reviewed several pending lawsuits.
Read the decision here:
Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Akron Beacon Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.