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Ohio Supreme Court invalidates GOP-drawn congressional districts

Just two days after it struck down state legislative voting maps for the same reason, the Ohio high court found new congressional districts also unfairly favor Republicans.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — The Ohio Supreme Court on Friday declared the state's new congressional district map violates a constitutional amendment aimed at stopping political gerrymandering.

In a 4-3 decision, the court ruled that the Ohio General Assembly violated two provisions of Article XIX, a voter-approved redistricting amendment, by approving a plan to reapportion Ohio's 15 seats for the U.S. House of Representatives that favors the Republican Party.

On Wednesday, the state high court also struck down the legislative district maps for for the Ohio House of Representatives and the Ohio Senate, which are governed by a different section of the Ohio Constitution known as Article XI. The court found a GOP-controlled redistricting commission violated Section 6(A) of Artice XI, which states that "no General Assembly district plan shall be drawn primarily to favor or disfavor a political party."

In Friday's majority opinion on the congressional districts, Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote that "the General Assembly did not heed the clarion call sent by Ohio voters to stop political gerrymandering."

Section 1(C)(3) of Article XIX states that lawmakers "shall not pass a plan that unduly favors or disfavors a political party," "shall not unduly split governmental units," and "shall attempt to draw districts that are compact."

Despite these constitutional directives, Donnelly said the new map "unduly favors the Republican Party and disfavors the Democratic Party." The majority also ruled that the map unreasonable splits three of Ohio's largest metropolitan areas in Hamilton, Cuyahoga and Summit counties, in order to give GOP candidates political leverage by combining urban and rural voters in 13 of the 15 congressional districts.

“The General Assembly produced a plan that is infused with undue partisan bias and that is incomprehensibly more extremely biased than the 2011 plan that it replaced,” the ruling states. “This is not what Ohio voters wanted or expected when they approved Article XIX as a means to end partisan gerrymandering in Ohio for good.”

Donnelly was joined in the majority by Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and Justices Melody J. Stewart and Jennifer Brunner. O'Connor wrote a concurring opinion that was joined by Brunner in which she tackled issues raised by the minority's dissenting opinion.

"No magician's trick can hide what the evidence overwhelming demonstrates: the map statistically presents such a partisan advantage that it unduly favors the Republican Party," the chief justice wrote.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fisher and R. Patrick DeWine were the dissenting judges, noting in a jointly written opinion that Article XIX does not define "unduly."

"So before we can say whether a plan 'unduly' favors a political party, we must have some baseline understanding of what a fair plan that does not favor one political party would look like," the dissenting opinion states. "At what point does permissible partisanship become unconstitutional?”

The dissent states the majority was wrong to hold the congressional maps to a so-called proportional-representation standard, which is only for the state legislative maps.

"While Article XI directs the Ohio Redistricting Commission to attempt to draw a General Assembly–district plan in which the statewide proportion of districts that favors each political party 'correspond[s] closely to the statewide preferences of the voters of Ohio' based on a proportionality formula, there is no similar language in Article XIX," it states.

The minority further disagreed on the undue divisions of governmental units, arguing that it is impossible to only look at county divisions because governmental units refers to counties, municipalities and townships, an the majority only looked at the more populated areas that were split rather than the whole state.

"We have to consider the division of governmental units in the context of the statewide plan as a whole to determine whether the splits are undue, and counties are only one part of the analysis," the dissenting opinion states.

Freda Levinson, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, applauded the majority's decision in a statement Friday.

"What a week! For the second time in three days, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a clear and meticulously detailed opinion striking Ohio redistricting plans. Today, the court struck the enacted congressional map for giving Republicans an unconstitutional partisan advantage," Levinson said. "The ruling proclaims that ‘gerrymandering is the antithetical perversion of representative democracy,’ and enforces the mandate put forward by Ohio voters in 2018 who demanded an end to this abuse of power."

Jen Miller, executive director the League of Women Voters of Ohio, one of the plaintiffs in the case, thanked the state's high court "for rejecting Ohio’s manipulated congressional map and for standing with voters and defending our democracy."

"We call on the Ohio General Assembly to do what voters and the Ohio Supreme court expect: draw a map that keep communities together and represents the right of every Ohio voter to have fair districts," she said.

The Ohio General Assembly has 30 days to present a new congressional map. If they cannot come to a decision, the Ohio Redistricting Committee will be given another 30 days to come up with a map that meets the constitutional criteria.

The filing date for congressional candidates is March 4.

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