COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio Supreme Court on Monday rejected a second set of Ohio Statehouse district maps that retained strong Republican majorities as gerrymandered — and sent them back for a third try.
In yet another 4-3 ruling, the high court found the bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission’s second attempt at drawing the maps had again failed to pass constitutional muster. No Democrats supported either plan.
Moderate Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who at 70 years old must leave the court Dec. 31 due to age limits, again provided a pivotal swing vote, joining the court’s three Democrats.
In another victory for voting rights and Democratic groups, the court gave the redistricting commission 10 days — until Feb. 17 — to pass a constitutional map. How that will go remains unclear. The Republican-dominated panel has failed twice already to reach bipartisan consensus despite the looming legal threats.
“Once again the Ohio Supreme Court stands with voters to require Ohio Redistricting Commission to do their job: make great maps that serve the people of Ohio, not partisan interests,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, one of the groups that sued.
The majority sharply criticized Republicans on the commission who said they decided to begin with the original, invalidated map “because time was short and they were familiar with it.”
“We clearly invalidated the entire original plan in (the earlier decision),” the majority opinion said. “The commission’s choice to nevertheless start with that plan and change it as little as possible is tantamount to an intent to preserve as much partisan favoritism as could be salvaged from the invalidated plan.”
Two dissenting justices, Sharon Kennedy and Pat DeWine, disagreed that the new map was unconstitutional — and criticized the new 10-day deadline.
“It is apparent that in disregard of constitutional standards, four members of this court have now commandeered the redistricting process and that they will continue to reject any General Assembly-district plan until they get the plan they want,” they wrote.
A combination of Republican foot-dragging and legal wrangling has now extended a process that was supposed to be completed last fall well into the 2022 primary season. The filing deadline for legislative candidates passed last week.
Ohioans overwhelmingly supported a 2015 constitutional amendment that mandated the committee at least attempt to avoid partisan favoritism and to proportionally distribute districts to reflect Ohio’s 54% Republican, 46% Democratic split.
O’Connor also joined Democrats in court rulings against the first set of legislative maps and against the state’s congressional district map, both of which were ruled unconstitutional. The court on Jan. 14 also ordered the congressional map redrawn, giving lawmakers 30 days and, if they fail, returning the reins to the seven-member redistricting panel. That process is expected to begin this week.
The string of defeats for Ohio’s ruling Republicans comes amid the process of map-making process states must undertake once per decade to reflect population changes from the U.S. Census.