Ohio Supreme Court Mulls Contempt For Top Republicans Amid Redistricting Power Grab

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 06: Republican Gubernatorial-elect Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine gives his victory speech after winning the Ohio gubernatorial race at the Ohio Republican Party's election night party at t... COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 06: Republican Gubernatorial-elect Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine gives his victory speech after winning the Ohio gubernatorial race at the Ohio Republican Party's election night party at the Sheraton Capitol Square on November 6, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. DeWine defeated Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Richard Cordray to win the Ohio governorship. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images) MORE LESS

The most powerful politicians in Ohio are apparently willing to risk being held in contempt of court if it means they can pass state legislative maps gerrymandered in their own favor. 

The politicians — including the state’s Republican governor, legislative leaders and secretary of state — are members of Ohio’s redistricting commission. And now, they could face consequences from the state’s Supreme Court for submitting yet another set of proposed state House and Senate maps that appear to violate state constitutional amendments against partisan gerrymandering. 

After the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the commission’s third attempt at drawing the maps last month, saying for the third time that they unconstitutionally favored Republicans, the commission hired independent experts and appeared to be charting a different path toward fair and proportional legislative districts that mirrored the way Ohioans actually vote. 

Then, with hours to go until the court’s midnight deadline last Monday, the commission set the independent mapmakers’ work aside and submitted their third map all over again, with just a few minor tweaks. 

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A Democrat on the commission called the map, introduced on the night of the deadline, a “farce.” And the court’s Republican chief justice, who has consistently sided with Democrats in finding the commission’s maps unconstitutional, gave the commissioners until Monday to respond to legal challengers’ motion to schedule a contempt hearing. The body’s Republicans responded with broadsides. 

“The only persons benefiting from any threatened contempt proceedings are the out-of-state partisan special interest groups who are now weaponizing litigation in an improper effort to thwart the will of Ohio voters, interfere with the legislative process, and unconstitutionally dilute opposition voters,” attorneys for Gov. Mike DeWine (R), who is on the commission, wrote

The governor’s filing accused legal challengers of attempting to “emasculate” the Ohio constitutional amendment dealing with redistricting.

Attorneys for Frank LaRose, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, wrote that “The new Fourth Plan adopted by the Commission on March 28 is obviously not the Petitioners’ preferred plan, and it may not be the Court majority’s preferred plan. But it is a new Plan, which is what this Court ordered the Commission to adopt by March 28.” 

A Dubious Time Crunch

Republicans on the commission said in filings Monday that, in proposing a re-warmed version of the previously-rejected map, they were simply reacting to a time crunch: The court had set a deadline of March 28 at midnight for finalizing the fourth proposed map. A few hours before the deadline, according to the commission’s Republicans, the independent experts they’d hired didn’t have a workable finished product, so they voted instead on a tweaked version of the previously-rejected third map. 

But the timeline warrants some skepticism: On the afternoon of March 28, both Democrats on the commission said, Senate President Matt Huffman (R), a commission member, announced for the first time that the effective deadline was not midnight but 10:30 p.m.; the commission apparently needed the extra time to email files to the secretary of state’s office. Then, Huffman mentioned the back-up map, which was really the rehashed third proposal. An hour later, he told reporters he’d thought of the idea to bypass the independent mapmakers two days earlier.

What’s more, Ohio Republicans have consistently worked to run out the clock on redistricting challenges, delaying the process in their own favor. And it’s worked: A challenged congressional map will almost certainly be used in the state for this year’s elections after the Supreme Court scheduled arguments over the map after the primary date. Following a lawsuit filed by Republican activists, a panel of federal judges is poised to potentially take over the state legislative map process if the state Supreme Court rejects the commission’s fourth proposed map.

The redistricting commission’s two Democrats, Sen. Vernon Sykes and House Minority Leader Allison Russo, said in a filing Friday that at the last minute, Republican commissioners “scrapped the plan that had been drafted on behalf of the entire Commission, and interjected a ‘new’ plan that was nearly identical to the unconstitutional Third Plan.” 

Referring to the Republican effort to have a federal court take over the dispute, Russo wrote Monday of commission Republicans: “They seem sure that, regardless of what this Court does, the federal court will allow them to go forward with an unconstitutional map on April 20. All they must do is continue to breach their duty to follow the Ohio Constitution and this Court’s orders while the clock runs out.” 

GOP Impeachment Threat Hangs Over Court’s Chief Justice

Looming over the redistricting saga is the threat by some Republicans to impeach Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican herself, over her repeated votes with the court’s Democrats on the redistricting case. 

On Friday, even one of the commissioners — Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) — said he was open to O’Connor’s impeachment, though he added it likely wouldn’t happen fast enough to affect the case. 

 “I think that she has not upheld her oath of office and that to me is a basic test of a public servant,” LaRose said during a Union County Republican Party event, Ohio Capitol Journal first reported. “That’s up to the state legislature, whether they want to impeach a chief justice or not. I certainly wouldn’t oppose it.”

Adding that the process could take months, LaRose said O’Connor “violated her oath of office by making up what she wants the law to say, rather than interpreting what it actually says.” 

“I don’t know if it would accomplish much, but I’d be fine with it if they did,” LaRose said. 

On Monday, attorneys for LaRose didn’t mention those comments in LaRose’s filing on the possibility of being held in contempt. 

Instead, they wrote, “Secretary LaRose is unwarrantedly being brought before this Court for doing nothing more than casting a vote for the Fourth Plan in accordance with his duty as a Commission member, given the options he had as the deadline approached.”

Correction: This article initially printed an incorrect date to refer to the Ohio Supreme Court’s deadline for the redistricting commission’s fourth round of proposed maps. The correct date is March 28.

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