COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The shape of Ohio’s state government for the next decade will be in the balance Wednesday as the Ohio Supreme Court hears arguments on new legislative maps that voter-rights and Democratic groups say are gerrymandered to favor Republicans.
Lawyers for the state will be defending the district boundaries, which are likely to retain Republicans’ Statehouse supermajorities, as constitutional. Justices can either affirm the maps or send them back to the Ohio Redistricting Commission to be redrawn.
The dispute comes amid the process of redrawing legislative and congressional district maps that states must undertake once per decade to reflect changes from the U.S. Census. Wednesday’s arguments relate only to legislative maps, not the one for U.S. House districts.
Advocacy and Democratic groups – the plaintiffs – argue the new boundaries undermine voters’ rights. They’re hoping the court opts to explain why the map is unconstitutional, so the GOP-dominated redistricting commission has clear guidance for creating “something that is fair for everyone,” said Patrick Yingling, an attorney for the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.
When Ohio voters approved a new legislative map-drawing system in 2015, they gave the high court with its 4-3 Republican majority exclusive jurisdiction to settle disputes over the maps. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a 70-year-old moderate Republican who will leave the court at year’s end due to age limits, is viewed as a potentially pivotal swing vote.
Separately, the legislative maps were challenged in federal district court Dec. 1 by a pair of Youngstown-area Black voters. New Bethel Baptist Church senior pastor Kenneth Simon and activist Helen Youngblood argue the maps violate the Voting Rights Act by stripping African Americans of the chance to elect a candidate of their choice. Their lawsuit’s fate is unclear, however, given federal courts were not given jurisdiction under Ohio’s new redistricting process.
Three separate cases challenging the maps in the Ohio Supreme Court have been consolidated for purposes of Wednesday’s arguments. Among groups involved in the challenges are the National Democratic Redistricting Committee’s legal arm, the ACLU, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, CAIR-Ohio, the League of Women Voters and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
The court has given each side — with its lineup of multiple lawyers — 30 minutes to make their case, which is double the usual time. A decision will come quickly, although probably not on the spot, because time is of the essence. The candidate deadline for 2022 is Feb. 2.
The Supreme Court’s role is another step in a new redistricting process that’s been rife with confusion and disagreement along the way.
The maps in question — laying out Ohio House and Ohio Senate lines — were pushed through the new Redistricting Commission at just past its deadline. The panel’s three statewide officials — Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Auditor Keith Faber, all Republicans —expressed opposition to the lines, yet all voted yes.
Minority Democrats, given a pivotal role in approval of a 10-year plan, never put their own map before the commission, deferring their chances to the courts, according to filings in the case. Both Democratic members of the seven-member redistricting commission voted no, so the maps being challenged are set to last just four years, rather than a full decade.