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Court orders redistricting maps redrawn

Republican chief justice sides with Democrats to thwart GOP efforts

Ohio Supreme Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor

In a 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the Republican-drawn state legislative maps as unconstitutional and gave the Ohio Redistricting Commission 10 days to redraw lines that don’t gerrymander districts.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, was the deciding vote, agreeing with the three Democrats on the seven-member court. The three other Republican justices wrote they had limited power over the maps, which heavily favored their political party.

“We therefore declare the plan invalid and order the commission to be reconstituted and to adopt a plan in conformity with the Ohio Constitution,” the decision reads.

With the Feb. 2 filing deadline for the state Legislature races three weeks away, the court gave the redistricting commission until Jan. 22, 10 days from Wednesday, when the decision was released, to come up with a more fair map. The court also retained jurisdiction for review of the new plan.

That Feb. 2 filing deadline could be moved by a vote of the state Legislature. The congressional filing deadline has already been moved to March 4.

In a concurring but separate opinion, O’Connor said that voters should consider seeking to get an independent commission to handle redistricting.

“Leaving the redistricting process to partisan-elected officials will not achieve the desired outcome” and people “should know that other models of the redistricting process exist,” O’Connor wrote.

She added that other state have had ballot measures “that strip redistricting authority from state Legislatures and partisan officeholders and place it instead with nonpartisan redistricting commissions.”

FIRST TIME

This was actually the first time the Ohio Redistricting Commission — which consists of five Republicans and two Democrats — drew legislative maps as part of a constitutional amendment overwhelming approved by voters in 2015.

Because the two Democrats on the commission — state Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes of Akron and her father, state Sen. Vernon Sykes, also of Akron — voted against the maps, they were only good for four years. If the two had supported the maps, they would have been in effect for 10 years.

While Republicans have won 54 percent of the vote in partisan statewide elections over the past decade the GOP-drawn maps had them maintaining a supermajority over the House and the Senate.

The Republican maps gave their political party an advantage in 65 of the 99 House districts and in 23 of the 33 Senate districts. Also, only eight House districts and four Senate districts could be considered competitive in that one political party had a 6 percent or less advantage over the other based on statewide voting trends.

The court ruled the maps “invalid because the commission did not attempt to draw a plan that meets the proportionality standard” in the Ohio Constitution.

VALLEY CHANGES

The most significant changes for the Mahoning Valley in the maps tossed out Wednesday by the court took much of the Democratic communities out of a state House district currently represented by state Rep. Michael Loychik, R-Bazetta, and made it significantly more Republican and making the state Senate district represented by Sandra O’Brien, R-Lenox, to include all of Trumbull and Portage counties.

O’Brien’s current district takes in all of Trumbull and Ashtabula counties and a small part of Geauga County. O’Brien lives in Ashtabula County, but as she is in the middle of her term, she will continue to represent the district even if drawn out of it.

Three lawsuits were filed against the redistricting commission over the legislative maps, contending they were gerrymandered. The court combined the three cases into one decision.

The court has yet to announce a decision on two lawsuits filed over the constitutionality of congressional maps. But it’s expected the outcome will be the same 4-3 vote as Wednesday’s decision on the state legislative maps and that the two cases will be combined.

In a separate federal lawsuit filed by two Youngstown residents that contends the congressional map drawn by Republicans in the state Legislature is gerrymandered and racially discriminatory, U.S. District Court Judge John Adams ruled Wednesday in favor of the state to postpone that case for 60 days to let the state cases play out.

Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, said the federal case could be rendered moot by the decision of the Ohio Supreme Court.

REACTION

State Rep. Michael J. O’Brien, D-Warren, said of the Supreme Court’s decision: “It doesn’t surprise me that O’Connor was the deciding vote to throw out the maps. I had heard all along she had concerns about the maps. It’s back to the drawing board. It’s the right decision. I’m pleased a majority of the Supreme Court decided the redrawn maps ridiculously favored the Republican Party.”

In a joint statement on the court’s decision, the Sykes’ wrote: “The court’s ruling today confirmed what Democrats have been saying all along: the gerrymandered maps created by the majority are unfair, unrepresentative and unconstitutional. Our hope is that the commission can now get back to work and draw new 10-year maps that better reflect what voters have demanded: fair districts created through a bipartisan, transparent process.”

Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican member of the commission, defended the maps a day before the decision.

He said Tuesday that he favored the Republican map because it was “more constitutional” than the Democratic proposal because it “split up less counties” and municipalities, and had “a significant number of competitive races.”

On Wednesday, DeWine said he “will work with my fellow redistricting commission members on revised maps that are consistent with the court’s order.”

Just before he voted Sept. 15 in favor of the maps, DeWine said: “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. I’m sorry we did not do that.”

Justice Sharon Kennedy, a Republican, wrote in a dissenting opinion: “The Ohio Constitution gives this court an important but limited role in reviewing a General Assembly-district plan. The majority today, though, finds the constitutionality imposed limits unduly constraining so it chooses to disregard them.”

She added: “Any claim that the General Assembly-district plan violates” the “Ohio Constitution is not well taken. Nothing in the text of the Ohio Constitution or our precedent provides support for the proposition that proportional representation in the General Assembly is constitutionally required.”

Justice Pat Fischer, a Republican, wrote that he was “strongly convinced” that “it is not even necessary for us to engage in an analysis of the merits of these cases. The text of the Ohio Constitution is clear and gives the allegations in the complaints, this court lacks the authority to act as requested by the petitioners bring these cases.”

Ohio Democratic Party Chairwoman Liz Walters said: “The Supreme Court today recognized what Ohioans already knew: GOP politicians tried to ram through an unconstitutional map that further rigs the state in favor of one party over another. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled, it’s imperative that the commission actually do their jobs this time and create maps that reflect our state, not a Republican Party wish list.”

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