COLUMBUS, Ohio — SEPTEMBER 20: Ohio Redistricting Commission co-chair Keith Faber review maps proposed by the Republicans at the commission meeting, September 20, 2023, in the Lobby Hearing Room at the James A. Rhodes Office Tower in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)
The recently-adopted Ohio House and Senate district maps have now received an official challenge with the Ohio Supreme Court.
Attorneys filed the challenge with the state’s highest court on Thursday, saying the Ohio Redistricting Commission “continues its open defiance of this Court’s orders” and asking that the court once again invalidate the maps as unconstitutional, also determining them an “insufficient remedy” to the requests the court made when they rejected the last maps and sent the task back to the ORC.
“Petitioners submit that this is the last chance to show that Ohioans were not sold a bill of goods in 2015 — the last chance to show that the current redistricting process is not irredeemably broken,” the groups wrote in their court challenge.
The maps were passed at the end of September with a 61-38 Republican advantage in the Ohio House and a 23-10 lean in the state Senate.
One of the parties in the challenge is the National Redistricting Action Fund, who called the Statehouse maps “among the most extreme gerrymanders in the nation.”
“They fail to accurately represent Ohio and fall extremely short of the expectation voters had when they enacted constitutional reforms to the redistricting process,” said John Bisognano, president of the NRAF, in a statement after the documents were filed with the state supreme court.
Technically, the court had asked for the commission to submit a new district plan by June 2022, according to anti-gerrymandering advocates, but that deadline passed without a plan, or even a schedule to redraw districts.
When the commission met more than a year after the last map was adopted, map challengers say the process played out in “closed-door negotiations” and produced a plan that “differed very little from the earlier proposal,” one that was chosen as a “working document” for the commission the week before it adopted the final map.
“As with prior maps, however, the overwhelming weight of public sentiment played little role in the plan adopted by the commission,” the court challengers stated.
The maps passed in a late-night meeting of the commission, in which no public comment was given or received before the commission made speeches and passed the maps unanimously.
In terms of the map itself, attorneys said the proportionality in the most recent map is “on par with that of the very first plan that this court invalidated and that of the twice-invalidated plan that was used in the 2022 elections.”
The two Democratic members of the commission, Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio and House Minority Leader Allison Russo, both made speeches criticizing the fraught process, and characterized their votes as a way to take the mapmaking process out of the hands of the commission, before giving their “yes” votes along with the GOP members.
Petition signature gathering is underway for a proposed amendment in 2024 to remove politicians from the process and replace the Ohio Redistricting Commission with a new Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission.
The bipartisan support of the recently adopted maps doesn’t automatically give the maps any more integrity than maps passed only along partisan lines, the anti-gerrymandering groups argue.
The court itself said “even if commission members of the minority party agreed to a proposed plan, this does not necessarily mean that the agreed-upon plan would comply with Section 6,” the constitutional clause that prohibits a General Assembly district plan from being drawn “primarily to favor or disfavor a political party.”
“To be sure, this court has already made clear that bipartisan support does nothing to save a constitutionally-flawed plan,” the challengers wrote.
The maps still have a statewide proportion of more than 65% Republican-leaning districts, despite the voting trends of the last ten years that only leaned 56% Republican.
Though many anti-gerrymandering advocates fear the change from the swing-vote of former Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor — who is now in the fight for redistricting reform — to now-Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy, who dissented in the previous map rejections, attorneys say the idea that the court might rule these maps constitutional after rejecting previous versions five times over the last two years would go against what Ohioans asked for when they reformed redistricting the first time.
“Dramatically reversing course now would reward the commission’s intransigence, undermine the court’s authority by suggesting that a party that defies that authority long enough can secure its own favored outcomes and confirm Ohioans’ cynicism,” the court filing stated. “If there were ever a case in which changing course would produce ‘real-world dislocations,’ this is that case.”
The groups are asking that the September plan be rejected, and also that the court “issue any other remedies it deems appropriate and necessary to ensure that Ohioans are able to vote under a constitutional General Assembly plan in 2024.”
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