CINCINNATI (CN) – A three-judge panel denied Republican lawmakers’ attempt to block a federal lawsuit accusing them of illegally drawing Ohio’s congressional election map in a hotel room nearly a decade ago.
Last year, a coalition of Democratic voters and groups, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, sued then-Governor John Kasich and other Republican lawmakers in Cincinnati federal court. They urged the court to enjoin a 2011 redistricting statute that the GOP used to redraw maps, arguing it gave an unfair advantage to Republicans at the expense of Democratic voters.
On Friday, a panel in the Southern District of Ohio rejected state GOP lawmakers’ motion for summary judgment and allowed the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute and its co-plaintiffs to continue their lawsuit.
U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Moore, who was appointed by Bill Clinton, joined U.S. District Judges Timothy Black, a Barack Obama appointee, and Michael Watson, a George W. Bush appointee, on the panel.
Election district challenges go before a three-judge panel by default, and appeal petitions go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Seventeen individual Democratic voters filed the lawsuit along with the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an advocacy group for black trade unionists. Other plaintiffs include the Northeast Ohio Young Black Democrats, the Hamilton County Young Democrats, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Ohio State University College Democrats.
In 2011, Governor Kasich signed Ohio’s district map for U.S. congressional elections.
The Democratic voters and groups claimed the map was not drawn as it should be by a bipartisan task force, but rather by Republican lawmakers in a Columbus hotel room.
“Ohio’s congressional districts were drawn for the purpose of locking in a Republican supermajority impervious to normal electoral swings,” they claimed in court filings.
The plaintiffs alleged that the map consistently locked in 12 Republican seats in the U.S. House with the Democrats only claiming four, in a redistricting process called “packing and cracking.”
In their motion for summary judgment, the Republicans argued that the Democrats’ claims are not actionable in court and they did not produce sufficient evidence to support their lawsuit.
The three-judge panel disagreed with the GOP’s argument in a 52-page opinion.
“The Supreme Court has held that partisan gerrymandering claims are justiciable,” the judges wrote. “Rather than dictating outcomes in these cases, courts are only fixing the process by which voters enact political change.”
They added that the plaintiffs will have to prove partisan intent and effect, as well as a lack of “legitimate justification” for the design of the voting districts.
“The prevailing difficulty in these cases seems to be evaluating partisan effect, or, in Justice [Anthony] Kennedy’s words, ‘how much partisan dominance is too much,’” the judges wrote.
They ruled that the plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment and proceed to trial.
This evidence includes alleged details of Republicans removing the beds from a DoubleTree Hotel room and installing computers to form an office called the “bunker.”
“Various state Republicans such as Tom Niehaus, the president of the Ohio State Senate, and Matt Schuler, the Ohio State Senate chief of staff, would visit those working on the map-drawing at the DoubleTree,” Friday’s ruling states, citing depositions in the case.
The judges wrote, “A reasonable trier of fact could find that the Republicans’ domination of the map-drawing process and the exclusion of Democrats indicate that partisan concerns motivated the map-drawing.”
The Democrats’ expert will testify that the map splits 322 census tracts, while the previous map only split 209.
Another of the plaintiffs’ experts generated 3 million congressional maps using a computer algorithm, none of which produced a 12-4 advantage for the Republicans, according to the ruling.
In addition to partisan intent, the three-judge panel also ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor on the issue of partisan effect.
While the Republicans captured the same 75 percent majority of U.S. House of Representatives seats from 2012 to 2018, their advantage in the statewide vote ranged from just 51 percent to 59 percent.
Summary judgment is also not appropriate, the judges wrote, due to a question of fact over whether the GOP lawmakers drew the map based on “traditional districting criteria.”
The plaintiffs have a proposed remedial map they claim would have produced more Democratic electoral victories than the map that has been in place since 2012.
The Republicans, however, argued Ohio’s district map was not overly tainted by partisanship because the General Assembly voted for it.
The judges disagreed, citing a quote from Republican State Senator Larry Obhof: “While a lot of Democrats voted for the current map … they didn’t really have a lot of negotiating power at that stage.”
Late last year, the same three-judge panel ordered the Ohio Republicans to make a stronger effort to turn over emails and other documents in the discovery process.
Former Republican State Leadership Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie had stated that he lost his AOL email password, while map drawer John Morgan had asserted that he only found one email relating to this case.