CINCINNATI (CN) – A three-judge panel ruled Friday that the Ohio congressional map drawn by Republican lawmakers after the 2010 census is an unconstitutional gerrymander that renders “one consistent result no matter the particularities of the election cycle.”
Ohio lawmakers defended the map during a two-week bench trial that began in March, but the panel of judges ultimately ruled in favor of the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute and a group of Democratic voters backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The panel is made up of U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Moore and U.S. District Judges Timothy Black and Michael Watson. Election district challenges implicating Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act go before a three-judge panel by default, and appeals go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The judges released their voluminous 301-page opinion Friday, and included a detailed summary of the evidence presented at trial, as well as the legal standards and applications used to reach their conclusions.
In addition to finding the congressional map unconstitutional, the panel also granted the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction that will prevent the map from being used in any future elections, including the 2020 presidential contest.
The judges admonished Ohio’s Republican lawmakers for using their “dominance” in the Legislature to “push through a remarkably pro-Republican redistricting bill without meaningful input from their Democratic colleagues.”
“They designed the 2012 map using software that allowed them to predict the partisan outcomes that would result from the lines they drew based on various partisan indices that they created from historical Ohio election data,” the ruling states.
Hamilton County, home of Cincinnati and the site of a contentious congressional race in 2018, was singled out as an area “where careful map design could eke out additional safe Republican seats.”
“[Mapmakers] split Hamilton County and the city of Cincinnati in a strange, squiggly, curving shape, dividing its Democratic voters and preventing them from forming a coherent voting bloc, which ensured the election of Republican representatives in Districts 1 and 2,” the opinion states.
The map has been used in four congressional election cycles since it was signed into law in 2012, and each of those cycles has resulted in a 12-4 advantage for Republicans.
The panel cited communications between Ohio lawmakers and national Republican operatives as evidence that “partisan outcomes were undoubtedly foremost in their minds when making line-drawing decisions.”
“Performing our analysis district by district, we conclude that the 2012 map dilutes the votes of Democratic voters by packing and cracking them into districts that are so skewed toward one party that the electoral outcome is predetermined,” the panel found. “We conclude that the map unconstitutionally burdens associational rights by making it more difficult for voters and certain organizations to advance their aims, be they pro-Democratic or pro-democracy.”
The panel went out of its way to remind both political parties that judicial intervention in the election process is not about “dictating political winners,” but rather “fixing the process by which voters enact political change.” (Emphasis in original.)
“Experience has shown,” the panel said, “that legislators are unlikely to act as neutral umpires in this context. Judges, however, play precisely that role. Rather than decide who wins an election in these cases, the courts’ role is to ensure an even playing field, just as courts have done with other forms of gerrymandering.”
Freda Levenson, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio and one of the attorneys who argued on behalf of the voters during trial, praised the court’s “meticulously detailed opinion.”
“This opinion, declaring Ohio an egregiously gerrymandered state, completely validates every one of our claims and theories in every respect,” Levenson said in a statement.
The judges ordered the parties to come up with, by June 3, a list of “three qualified and mutually acceptable candidates to serve as a special master” that will propose a remedial map.
The parties were also ordered to submit briefs regarding whether one of the remedial maps proposed by William Cooper, a mapping consultant and one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, could be used for future elections.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, said the state will appeal the ruling.
“Ohioans already voted to reform how we draw our congressional maps,” he said. “This protracted opinion takes that decision out of the hands of the people and is a fundamentally political act that has no basis whatsoever in the Constitution.”