After GOP attorney general intervenes, Democrats represent themselves in redistricting court filings

By: - January 28, 2022 3:45 pm

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images)

They say a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.

Maneuvering by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, meanwhile, has all but forced ranking Democrats into the unenviable position of representing themselves in filings to the Ohio Supreme Court in a high stakes lawsuit that establishes political districts for Ohio’s elections over the next four to 10 years.

“This is a shameless effort to thwart our ability to comply with the Court’s order and to separately inform the Court about what transpired in the Commission following the Court’s January 12, 2022, decision invalidating the General Assembly district plan,” wrote House Minority Leader Allison Russo, acting as her own lawyer.

The Ohio Supreme Court overturned a redistricting proposal passed by Ohio Republicans earlier this month, finding it violates an anti-gerrymandering measure overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2015 and gives the party an unfair advantage.

The court ordered the Ohio Redistricting Commission — consisting of three statewide officeholders, all GOP, and four bipartisan state lawmakers — to produce a map that aligns with the constitutional mandate.

Republicans on the ORC once again passed a map along party lines Jan. 22. The plaintiffs who originally filed the lawsuit have since lodged objections with the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing even the second attempt is still an unconstitutional gerrymander. The ORC was ordered to respond to those objections by noon Friday. (You can read some of the arguments for and against the new maps here.)

The Democrats are technically named in the lawsuit as defendants, though their interests align with the plaintiffs seeking to overturn the maps. For this reason, they were granted their own lawyers and the ability to make arguments separate from their Republican counterparts. However, Yost has since blocked their lawyers from responding to such objections.

On Wednesday, the Democrats’ lawyers, who were retained through Yost’s office, told ranking House Democrat Allison Russo that Yost “would not allow them to represent” them and “could not assist us in filing a response,” according to court filings submitted Friday.

The filings were submitted “pro se,” legal jargon for people making court appearances and filings on their own behalf without an attorney.

Bethany McCorkle, a Yost spokeswoman, in a statement noted that Yost didn’t block anyone from keeping outside counsel. Instead, Yost prohibited individual members on the commission from responding to the objections in their individual capacities.

Indeed, the Ohio Redistricting Commission, representing its five Republicans and two Democrats, responded Friday. It argued the court should approve of the maps as is — the opposite argument from what the Democrats presented. Had the Democrats not filed pro se, they’d essentially be captive to legal arguments made in their own names with which they disagree.

According to McCorkle, it was the Democrats who asked their lawyers to withdraw as counsel (which they formally did Friday morning). The Democrats said in court, however, that “our counsel was told that they would no longer represent or advise us.”

While the statements aren’t necessarily contradictory, it’s unclear what value an attorney can offer who cannot ‘represent or advise’ a client.

McCorkle did not respond to inquiries about the two statements.

In a news release accompanying the court filings, Democrats sounded off against the new map proposal, as well as the legal machinations behind the scenes.

“We are representing the vast majority of Ohioans who wanted a change in how we draw the state legislative maps,” Russo and Sykes said in a joint statement. “We won’t be silenced when it comes to the people’s right to vote in fair districts and to have their votes counted on equal footing. This process was secretive and closed off from the public, and we wanted to be sure the Ohio Supreme Court knew what was happening behind the scenes. That’s why we took this drastic step and spoke up — much like the hundreds of thousands of Ohioans who spoke up, not once but twice, for fair maps.”



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Jake Zuckerman
Jake Zuckerman

Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.