In two separate constitutional referendums, in 2015 and 2018, Ohio voters overwhelming rejected grotesquely partisan gerrymanders and decreed a series of safeguards intended to make how Ohio draws its congressional and General Assembly districts fairer and more transparent. Voters couldn’t outlaw partisan mischief by Democrats and Republicans, but they tried to make it harder to achieve.
What voters didn’t anticipate was that one party would try to use its hammerlock on the Ohio legislature to arm itself — and only itself — with public funds for the inevitable courtroom battles.
But that is just what Statehouse Republicans are trying to do. The maneuver — hiding the provision in a 3,307-page budget — should not succeed.
Tucked into Senate Republicans’ rewrite of Ohio’s pending budget (House Bill 110) is an amendment letting the House speaker (Lima Republican Bob Cupp) and Senate president (Lima Republican Matt Huffman) intervene in any lawsuit challenging a state law’s constitutionality – or challenging the congressional districts legislators draw. What’s more, the speaker and president could hire, at state expense, any lawyers they choose rather than have the attorney general represent them.
Slipping that amendment into the budget bill suggests a well-founded GOP fear that a bill lawyering up Huffman and Cupp at taxpayers’ expense could never pass. Nor should it, which is why it has no business in the budget.
Because of delays in the release of federal Census data, Huffman had earlier floated a trial balloon, calling for extended deadlines for redrawing districts, a move some opponents saw as an attempt to rush the redistricting process without sufficient time for citizen input. Legislators wisely shelved that idea — Huffman in fairness had said he wouldn’t proceed without bipartisan buy-in. (In fairness, also, Huffman was prime co-sponsor of both the 2015 and 2018 reforms.)
The stakes couldn’t be higher now, however.
After every Census, Ohio must redraw its 99 Ohio House and 33 state Senate districts, and its congressional districts. Because of Ohio’s lagging population, the 2020 Census has decreed that the state’s 16 congressional districts must be reshaped into 15. That creates the likelihood that Ohio Republicans will seek to squeeze the state’s Democrats into even fewer districts.
Thanks to past gerrymanders, Democrats today represent only one-fourth of Ohio’s congressional districts — that is, four, to Republicans’ 12 — even though in the November 2020 presidential, election, Democrat Joe Biden won about 45% of the state’s vote. Earlier, the state voted for Barack Obama for president, twice.
Current Ohio law dictates that the legislature must draw congressional districts good for the next ten years by Sept. 30.
Per Ohio voters’ May 2018 constitutional amendment, the new process will require “yes” votes from at least 60 of the 99 state representatives and at least 20 of the 33 senators, with at least half the members of each party caucus voting “yes.” Given the legislature’s current makeup, that means at least 32 House Republicans and 18 House Democrats, and at least 13 Senate Republicans and four Senate Democrats. If those minima can’t be attained, there are procedural backstops that, bottom line, could produce congressional districts good for four years, not ten.
Per Ohio voters’ November 2015 referendum decision, it’s up to the Ohio Redistricting Commission to draw new General Assembly districts. The commission is composed of Gov. Mike DeWine, Auditor Keith Faber, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and four others (two per party) picked by legislative leaders. DeWine, Faber and LaRose are Republican, making the panel 5-2 Republican. To adopt districts for ten years, at least one commissioner from the minority party must vote for them. If not, there are backstops that could produce districts good for four years, not ten.
Come what may, given the political stakes, litigation is inevitable.
Restricting which party can control that litigation — and pick the lawyers prosecuting it, with the fees paid by taxpayers — is a nonstarter.
Meanwhile, House Bill 286, sponsored by the House’s No. 3 Republican, Rep. William G. Seitz, of suburban Cincinnati, would require Statehouse corruption cases to be tried in a defendant’s home county, not in Columbus. Virtually all Ohio criminal cases are tried in the county where an alleged crime occurred. Coincidentally or not, for the first time since 1952, Franklin County’s prosecuting attorney is a Democrat, former Ohio 10th District Court of Appeals Judge Gary Tyack.
Like the Senate’s “Lawyers-for-Leaders” budget amendment, the proposed change of venue for Statehouse corruption trials belongs in the nearest Columbus wastebasket.
— Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 20