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Ohio Supreme Court rejects legislative maps for third time

The 4-3 decision means a new statehouse map may not be in place for the May 3 primary.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — The Ohio Supreme Court has rejected the latest version of a legislative district map approved by the Republican-led Ohio Redistricting Committee, sending it back to the drawing board for a third time.

In a 4-3 decision Wednesday night, the majority said the newest statehouse map, like the two others before it, also violated the Ohio Constitution's prohibitions against gerrymandering.

"Substantial and compelling evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the main goal of the individuals who drafted the second revised plan was to favor the Republican Party and disfavor the Democratic Party," the majority's unsigned opinion states.

Mirroring earlier decisions, the majority consisted of Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and Justices Michael Donnelly, Melody Stewart and Jennifer Brunner. Justices Sharon Kennedy, Patrick Fischer and Patrick DeWine dissented. DeWine, son of Ohio Redistricting Commission member and Governor Mike DeWine, recused himself from the issue of which commission members could be held in contempt for failing to file new maps by the deadline, but did not recuse himself from the full case.

The Republican members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission include state Senate President Matt Huffman, Speaker of the House Robert Cupp, Governor DeWine, Auditor Keith Faber and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. The only Democrats on the commission are state Senator Vernon Sykes and House Minority Leader Allison Russo.

The majority agreed with voting rights groups claiming that the districts the committee marked as Democratic-leaning should have been marked as toss-ups, as the advantage for the Democrats in those districts is less than 1%. The latest map considered 19 House districts and seven Senate districts to be toss-ups,

"The result is that the 54 percent seat share for the Republicans is a floor, while the 46 percent share for the Democrats is a ceiling," the majority ruling states. (Emphasis in original.)

The four justices found the newest legislative map violates Article XI, Section 6(A) of the Ohio Constitution, which states, "No general assembly district plan shall be drawn primarily to favor or disfavor a political party."

"The remarkably one-sided distribution of the toss-up districts is evidence of an intentionally biased map, and it leads to partisan asymmetry," the ruling states, citing expert testimony that the latest map is more partisan than earlier drafts.

The majority also said Republican leaders Huffman and Cupp "did not allow the minority-party commission members to provide input on the second revised plan, much less participate in its creation." According to the opinion, Democrats weren't weren't given a copy of the map until the day it was voted on and passed. Russo told the court she did not know if the plan that passed the committee was the same one that the minority members had been given.

"Senator Huffman's concern for protecting incumbents is not grounded in Article XI," the ruling states.

In their dissent, Kennedy and DeWine raised concern over the majority ruling's impact on the upcoming May 3 primary election.

"The majority decrees electoral chaos. It issues an order all but guaranteed to disrupt an impending election and bring Ohio to the brink of a constitutional crisis," they wrote.

Earlier dissents claimed that the court moved the goal posts when it added requirements not in the state constitution, but in this decision, Kennedy and DeWine wrote, it "tears down those goal posts altogether."

"Through its actions today, the majority undermines the democratic process, depriving the voters of the constitutional amendment they enacted and leaving in its place on the majority's policy preferences," they wrote. "In doing so, It threatens the very legitimacy of this court."

Fischer penned a separate dissent, saying he would not reach the merits of the case. "The majority opinion here represents a third attempt at exercising authority not granted to this court by the Ohio Constitution," he said.

In its ruling, the court's majority suggested the redistricting commission "retain an independent map drawer – who answers to all commission members, not only the Republican legislative leaders – to draft a plan through a transparent process."

The commission now has until March 28 to file a new statehouse map with Secretary of State LaRose, which needs to be sent to the Ohio Supreme Court the day after filing. Challengers then have three days to object.

The state high court is also still considering challenges to congressional maps passed earlier this month.

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