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Youngstown group drops part of claim in congressional maps lawsuit

Still argue congressional maps violate rights

The three African-American Youngstown residents seeking to invalidate the new congressional map for disenfranchising black voters in the Mahoning Valley agreed to drop claims of constitutional violations in their federal lawsuit. But they refuse to dismiss assertions the map violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

The “plaintiffs do not concede their constitutional claims are not cognizable, however, the focus of plaintiffs’ actions here is defendants’ violation of the Voting Rights Act because of the express policy to not consider racial demographics in connection with the configuration of Ohio’s proposed United States congressional districts,” Percy Squire, their attorney, wrote in a Tuesday filing in the Northern District of Ohio’s federal court.

Judge John R. Adams in Akron is hearing the case that focuses on the 6th Congressional District and those that surround it.

Four days earlier, Squire objected to a request by the Ohio Redistricting Commission, a Republican-controlled body that approved the map, to dismiss the entire case. In that filing, Squire reiterated his arguments that the map not only violates the Voting Rights Act but also the Constitution’s 14th and 15th Amendments.

The Voting Rights Act, approved in 1965, prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color or language.

The 14th Amendment grants equal civil and legal rights to African Americans to include them under the phrase “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” while the 15th Amendment states citizens’ right to vote shall not be denied for race or color. Both were ratified shortly after the end of the Civil War.

The Youngstown residents are seeking to invalidate the results of the May 3 primary for the new 6th Congressional District, which has Mahoning as its most-populous county, and any district that touches it. Three districts border the 6th, including the 14th District, which has Trumbull as its second most-populous county.

The group, which filed the lawsuit April 15, also asked the court to grant a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to get class action certification and for a special master to be appointed to control the Ohio redistricting process as well as have the chief justice of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals create a three-member panel for the case.

The lawsuit from the three Youngstown residents states the congressional redistricting plan “dilutes black voter strength by separating Mahoning and Trumbull counties and by submerging Mahoning (County) black voters into a racially polarized voting district 165 miles long comprised of 10 counties, which results in the political processes leading to election of representatives of choice not being equally open to plaintiffs.”

The group is proposing a congressional district of Mahoning and Trumbull counties along with “more racially diverse adjacent Stark, Summit or Cuyahoga counties.”

The plaintiffs in this case are the Rev. Kenneth L. Simon, senior pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Youngstown and chairman of the Community Mobilization Committee; Helen Youngblood, a community activist and former labor leader who is chairwoman of the Mahoning Valley 1619 Project; and the Rev. Lewis W. Macklin II, lead pastor of Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in Youngstown.

Its initial lawsuit filed in December, which the group voluntarily dismissed March 22, objected to a congressional district that put Mahoning and Trumbull counties together with eight southern counties, saying it “will result in illegal and unconstitutional dilution of the black vote” in Youngstown. State legislative Republicans had approved that map.

Those districts were changed March 2 by the redistricting commission after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. Mahoning was kept in the new 6th District with largely those same southern counties in the first map. Trumbull was put in a new 14th District with counties to its north and west.

In a May 4 motion, Julie M. Pfeiffer, assistant chief of the Ohio attorney general’s constitutional office who’s representing the five Republican commission members being sued, wrote that “the case must be dismissed because all of plaintiffs’ claims fail on the merits.”

She added that the “plaintiffs have not established they will suffer irreparable harm without an injunction. In fact, plaintiffs’ request relief — to deny the primary winners of congressional districts their certificates of nomination would cause substantial harm to others and it contravenes the public interest.”

Pfeiffer wrote, “To describe such an injunction as ‘havoc-wreaking’ would not be hyperbolic here. Allowing an election to occur, then enjoining the winners from proceeding on to the general election would cause significant voter confusion, it would cripple Ohioans’ trust and confidence in their election and it would be astoundingly unfair — not just to Ohio voters but to the congressional candidates who have spent effort, time and resources in campaigning for a spot on the primary ticket. The requested injunction also lacks all clarity in scope and duration. Even if this court could issue the injunction, it shouldn’t because the election has already occurred and restraint is required.”

Because all 15 congressional districts in the state “fit together like puzzle pieces” it “is no far stretch to see where all 15 districts would be impacted by a change in just one,” Pfeiffer wrote.

The response was filed on behalf of the five Republican members of the redistricting commission who voted March 2 in favor of a new congressional map. Those members are Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Auditor Keith Faber, Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp and Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman.

The two Democrats on the commission — state House Minority Leader Allison Russo and state Sen. Vernon Sykes — voted against the map that gives Republicans a 10-3 advantage, with two toss-up seats that slightly lean Democratic.

Erik J. Clark, a Columbus attorney representing the seven-member commission, filed a May 11 motion to also dismiss the lawsuit. He echoed Pfeiffer’s claims and added that the commission cannot be sue because it “is not a ‘person'” and thus is barred from having claims filed against it and by the “principles of state sovereign immunity.”

The Ohio Supreme Court hasn’t rule on the constitutionality of this map — though it did invalidate an initial map on Jan. 12 saying it unfairly gerrymandered in favor of Republicans.

Because the court hasn’t acted, LaRose ordered the map approved March 2 by the commission to be used for the May 3 primary because it is valid.

Pfeiffer filed a motion Wednesday on behalf of LaRose in that state case asking the court to reject an injunction for the congressional election from separate parties.

Using similar language as in the federal lawsuit, Pfeiffer wrote, “Issuing an injunction that would prevent the winners from appearing on the general election ballot destroys the status quo and wreaks havoc on election administration.”

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