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State Supreme Court rules congressional maps unconstitutional

AP Members of the Ohio Senate Government Oversight Committee hear testimony on a new map of state congressional districts on Nov. 16, 2021, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus. On Friday, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected a new map of the state’s 15 congressional districts as gerrymandered, sending the blueprint back for another try. The 4-3 decision returns the process to the General Assembly.

As it did with state legislative maps, the Ohio Supreme Court — again by a 4-3 vote — ruled the Republican-drawn congressional districts that heavily favored that political party are unconstitutional because of gerrymandering.

Despite a constitutional amendment designed to make congressional redistricting more fair, “the 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,” reads the court’s decision, written by Justice Michael P. Donnelly.

The state Legislature will have up to 30 days to draw a more fair congressional map. If lawmakers can’t pass one in that time, the responsibility would go to the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which then would have 30 more days to produce a map.

The Legislature previously moved the congressional primary filing deadline from Feb. 2 to March 4. Depending on how redistricting progresses, the filing deadline may have to be moved again or even the May 3 primary date possibly changed.

The unconstitutional map was good for only four years as it failed to get any Democratic support. A map with at least 50 percent Democratic support in the Legislature would be good for 10 years, while it would need the support of both Democratic members of the seven-person redistricting commission to be in effect for that long if it ends up there.

“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 reform,” Friday’s decision read.

NOT REPRESENTATIVE

The map approved in November by the Republican-controlled state Legislature gave that political party a 12-3 advantage, although one Democratic district and one Republican district had a difference of about 1 percent between the two political parties based on voting trends in partisan statewide elections during the past decade.

Republicans currently have a 12-4 advantage with Ohio losing one seat in this election because the state’s population didn’t grow as fast as the rest of the country.

The court’s decision stated the state constitutional amendment, overwhelmingly approved in 2018 by voters, requires the map to be representative of votes during the past decade, which is 54 percent Republican and 46 percent Democrat. The 12-3 map is 80 percent Republican to 20 percent Democrat.

“We hold that the congressional-district plan is invalid in its entirety because it unduly favors the Republican Party and disfavors the Democratic Party in violation” of the constitution, the decision reads. “We also hold that the plan unduly splits Hamilton, Cuyahoga and Summit counties.”

The decision said Republicans split those three counties “to confer partisan advantage to the political party that drew the plan.”

It added: “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 percent of the statewide popular vote is positioned to reliably win anywhere from 75 percent to 80 percent of the seats in the Ohio congressional delegation. By any rational measure, that skewed result just doesn’t add up.”

VALLEY UNCERTAINTY

It’s uncertain what will happen to the Mahoning Valley in a new map.

The map struck down Friday by the court had the entirety of both counties in a Republican-leaning district with eight counties to the south.

Senate Democrats had proposed a map that split Mahoning County with its eastern portion in a Republican-leaning district that also included all of Trumbull and the rest of Mahoning in a solid Republican district with southern counties.

In the dissenting court opinion, putting Mahoning and Trumbull in a single district with Columbiana County was mentioned in a positive light.

Like Wednesday’s decision striking down state legislative maps for unconstitutional gerrymandering, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, joined the court’s three Democrats — Donnelly, Jennifer Brunner and Melody Stewart — in ruling in favor of two lawsuits challenging the congressional districts with the three other Republicans in opposition.

O’Connor criticized her fellow Republicans on the court in a four-paragraph concurring opinion, writing their “characterization of all the metrics used by petitioners’ experts as simply being measures of ‘proportional representation’ is sleight of hand. No magician’s trick can hide what the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates: The map statistically presents such a partisan advantage that it unduly favors the Republican Party.”

In the dissenting opinion, Justices Sharon Kennedy, Pat DeWine and Pat Fischer wrote the constitution “does not require a congressional-district plan to even attempt to provide proportionately representative districts.”

They added the majority “is making policy, not apply(ing) the law” and they “have grave concerns about the majority’s untethered-by-law eagerness to wrest from the political branches of our government the authority that rightly belongs to them.”

In a footnote, the majority decision wrote of the dissent not having a lead writer: “This authorship label has never been used by this court. Its use now, without explanation by the dissent, is unusual and inexplicable.”

The dissenting opinion stated: “We don’t envy the Legislature’s task here. Despite ordaining that the entire map is unconstitutional, the majority has provided little guidance that will assist the Legislature in remedying the majority’s perceived deficits.”

REACTION

Democrats and groups that sought fair maps hailed the court’s decision.

“Once again, the Ohio Supreme Court did what the Legislature refused to do: listened to the will of Ohio voters,” Ohio Democratic Party Chairwoman Liz Walters said. “Any map that further rigs our state in favor of one party over another is unacceptable, and we’ll be watching closely to make sure any new maps reflect the fair representation that Ohioans overwhelmingly called for.”

The Equal Districts Coalition, a group of more than 30 Ohio advocacy groups and labor unions, wrote: “The Ohio Supreme Court has stood firm with Ohio voters and our state constitution. They have soundly rejected district maps rigged to give Republicans far more seats in Congress than they earn in votes. Ohio voters spoke and the Supreme Court listened. Let’s get to work to implement the people’s ruling.”

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, said: “It should have never come to this. Republican politicians in Columbus should have followed the constitutional mandate that voters gave them.”

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