Bipartisan Ohio Supreme Court Majority Rejects Partisan Statehouse Redistricting Maps for Fifth Time

click to enlarge Bipartisan Ohio Supreme Court Majority Rejects Partisan Statehouse Redistricting Maps for Fifth Time
Photo: Courtesy of the Ohio Supreme Court

Ohio House and Senate district maps previously passed by Republican members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission and previously ruled unconstitutional remain invalid, a bipartisan 4-3 majority on the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Declining to hold commissioners in contempt, the court ordered the Ohio Redistricting Commission be reconstituted to draft and adopt new General Assembly maps that meet the requirements of the Ohio Constitution. The court set a new deadline of June 3. This date is past the May 28 date a federal court has set as a deadline for when it will implement the maps that were just rejected for the second time by the state high court.

In between their original adoption by the commission and the court’s first rejection of them as unconstitutional, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose ordered boards of elections to load the maps into their systems and prepare to use them.

Republicans on the redistricting commission used the fact that elections officials were already ordered to use the maps as part of their decision to pass the maps a second time.

LaRose is among the four commissioners who voted for the maps both times. Others were Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Republican legislative leaders representing the Ohio House and Senate (originally Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman, then their chosen replacements on the commission, state Rep. Jeff LaRe, and state Sen. Sen. Rob McColley).

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined the majority opinion.

“The respondents who voted in favor of readopting Map 3 defend the commission’s action, arguing that Map 3 is the only viable option for use in the 2022 election cycle,” the majority wrote. “The fact remains that Map 3 still violates Article XI, Sections 6(A) and 6(B) of the Ohio Constitution.”

The majority noted that they had ordered the commission to adopt an entirely new map.

“Neither the current election deadlines, the General Assembly’s inability or unwillingness to alter those deadlines, nor the question whether the map would be a viable option for use in the 2022 election cycle prevented the commission from adopting a new, constitutional district plan,” they wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice O’Connor, joined by Justice Donnelly, wrote that with the federal court’s reassurance that continuing delays and inactions would be rewarded, the commission has “engaged in a stunning rebuke of the rule of law” by readopting Map 3.

“This court has been placed in a remarkable position,” O’Connor wrote. “With the reassurance provided by a federal district court in (the federal case) that continuing delays and inaction would be rewarded with the implementation of a previously rejected map, respondent Ohio Redistricting Commission has, contrary to this court’s clear order, resubmitted an unconstitutional General Assembly district plan and, in doing so, has engaged in a stunning rebuke of the rule of law.”

She said the federal court “did not stay its hand until May 28 as it stated it would,” but rather “provided the Republican commission members not only a roadmap of how to avoid discharging their duties but also a green light to further delay these proceedings by stating its intention to implement ‘Map 3’ … all the while acknowledging that this court had declared Map 3 to be invalid and unconstitutional.”

Each of the federal court’s concerns about conducting the election, O’Connor said, were “created by the commission’s lack of action — which is in direct defiance of its constitutional duties and this court’s four prior judgments — and all those concerns were then, and are now, fully capable of resolution by the commission or the General Assembly.”

“Lamentably, the federal court’s optimism that the commission members ‘are public servants who still view partisan advantage as subordinate to the rule of the law,’ proved to be unfounded,” she said.

O’Connor even referenced a recent Columbus Dispatch profile of Senate President Matt Huffman.

O’Connor wrote, “The Republican dominance of the General Assembly gave rise to a telling boast by President of the Senate Matt Huffman: ‘We can kind of do what we want.’ Do what we want apparently translates into the Republican-majority members of the redistricting commission ignoring rulings of this state’s highest court and the mandates of Ohio’s Constitution.

“Americans’ belief that no one is above the law — no individual, no organization, no political party — is a bedrock of our nation’s legal system, and one which makes it the envy of many other countries,” O’Connor wrote. “In light of this court’s limited role in the redistricting process, setting aside differences and working together is the responsibility of the commission members in upholding their oaths of office as elected officials — oaths that are taken not to ensure that one political party has a supermajority but to obey Ohio’s Constitution.”

O’Connor said that the Ohio Supreme Court and the Ohio Constitution “should not be held hostage by a redistricting commission acting according to partisan directives and a legislature that has created a crisis due to its own inaction.”

“Any threat to Ohioans’ right to vote in this scenario stems entirely from the commission’s repeated failures to comply with this court’s rulings and the General Assembly’s refusal to set a workable primary date,” she wrote. “The remedy, then, should not be the approval of an unconstitutional map that rewards those who created the crisis to begin with. The remedy, instead, must be to craft a resolution of the manufactured crisis by those with the authority to do so — the commission and the legislature.”

Finally, O’Connor offered advice to Ohio voters: “Having witnessed the ways in which constitutional reforms may be frustrated by hyper-partisanship and the power of inertia, Ohioans have the power to change those dynamics. That opportunity must not be squandered.”

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Patrick F. Fischer wrote separate dissenting opinions. Justice Kennedy stated the court has overstepped its limited authority to review the commission’s maps. Justice R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion. Justice Fischer wrote the state constitution contains provisions for when the bipartisan commission reaches an impasse and cannot agree on a map. He also maintained that the court has never had the constitutional authority to review the disputed commission plans.

Originally published by the Ohio Capital Journal. Republished here with permission.