Ohio Supreme Court’s GOP Chief Justice Challenges Party With Appeal To Voters On Redistricting

The state redistricting commission's maps favoring Republicans, she said, indicated the commission was “seemingly unwilling to put aside partisan concerns.” 
Maureen O’Connor
Screenshot, YouTube/Ohio Access to Justice Foundation

The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down new legislative maps from the state’s Republican-dominated redistricting commission, saying that the maps for state House and Senate favored the GOP to such an extent that they violated the state’s constitution. 

The court ordered the commission to come up with a new, fairer maps within 10 days.

But perhaps just as noteworthy, the court’s Republican chief justice — who concurred with Democrats to make a majority — urged Ohio voters to consider a different redistricting model altogether, given that the redistricting commission was “seemingly unwilling to put aside partisan concerns.” 

In her opinion concurring with the court’s majority, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said she was writing separately “because readers should understand they have the power to again amend the Ohio Constitution to ensure that partisan politics is removed from the drawing of Ohio Senate and House districts that takes place every ten years.” 

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O’Connor cited other states where the redistricting process is taken out of partisans’ hands and given to independent redistricting commissions — a model, she wrote, that shifts redistricting power “away from partisan actors who have an incentive to gerrymander in order to maintain or expand their political power.” 

“Having now seen firsthand that the current Ohio Redistricting Commission — comprised of statewide elected officials and partisan legislators — is seemingly unwilling to put aside partisan concerns as directed by the people’s vote, Ohioans may opt to pursue further constitutional amendment to replace the current commission with a truly independent, nonpartisan commission that more effectively distances the redistricting process from partisan politics,” O’Conner wrote. 

Both O’Connor and Justice Melody J. Stewart, who wrote the court’s majority opinion, referred frequently to a constitutional amendment passed by Ohio voters in 2015 that sought to make the redistricting process fairer and more accountable.

The state House and Senate maps this year fell short of those goals, they said.

You may have heard about the strange math used by the five-member Republican majority on the redistricting commission: Because Republicans had won 81% of statewide elections over the past decade — not considering the sometimes-slim margins by which they won those races — Republicans on the commission argued that that was the upper limit for how partisan the legislative districts could be.

By that logic, critics pointed out, a state like New York, where Democrats almost always win statewide races, would be justified in drawing all of its legislative districts so that they lean Democratic.

The share of the actual popular vote received by statewide Republicans over the previous decade, 54%, was used only as a lower boundary by the commission’s Republican majority. 

On their proposed state House map, an estimated 67 of 99 districts leaned Republican, the court noted. Stewart cited an expert included in the arguments against the map, Harvard statistics professor Kosuke Imai, who found that the plan adopted by the commission favored the GOP more than 5,000 possible district plans created by an algorithm. 

“The fact that the adopted plan is an outlier among 5,000 simulated plans is strong evidence that the plan’s result was by design,” Stewart wrote. 

The decision was also notable for some family ties: Justice Pat DeWine, who voted with the court’s conservatives in support of the gerrymandered maps, is Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s (R) son. 

Gov. DeWine, who voted for the maps that were struck down by the Supreme Court, sounded a note of regret upon their passage from the commission.

“What I am sure in my heart is that this committee could have come up with a bill that was much more clearly, clearly constitutional,” he said. “I’m sorry we did not do that.” 

The line was quoted in the court’s majority opinion striking down the maps.

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