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Ohio Supreme Court rules that GOP gerrymander is 'unconstitutional'

‘The evidence in these cases makes clear beyond all doubt that the General Assembly did not heed the clarion call sent by Ohio voters to stop political gerrymandering,’ the Ohio court said.

By Josh Israel - January 14, 2022
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine

Ohio Republicans rammed through a congressional map in November gerrymandered to give them at least 12 of the state’s 15 House seats. On Friday, the state Supreme Court, also dominated by Republicans, rejected it as a clear violation of the Ohio Constitution.

Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor joined the court’s three Democratic justices in a 4-3 ruling calling the map — which was adopted along party lines by the GOP-controlled state Legislature and signed by the Republican Gov. Mike DeWine — unconstitutional as it “unduly favors” the GOP and “unduly splits” counties.

“Gerrymandering is the antithetical perversion of representative democracy,” Justice Michael Donnelly wrote for the majority. “Despite the adoption of Article XIX, the evidence in these cases makes clear beyond all doubt that the General Assembly did not heed the clarion call sent by Ohio voters to stop political gerrymandering.”

The decision came days after the same four justices struck down GOP gerrymanders of Ohio’s state legislative districts on similar grounds.

Like all states, Ohio must enact new congressional and legislative maps every 10 years, based on the U.S. census.

The GOP holds majorities in Ohio’s House and its Senate, and the state has a Republican governor. In the past, they would have been free to create a map as politically rigged as they liked.

But in 2018, voters overwhelmingly adopted a state constitutional amendment — 75% to 25% — to “end the partisan process for drawing congressional districts, and replace it with a process with the goals of promoting bipartisanship, keeping local communities together, and having district boundaries that are more compact.”

Despite voicing reservations about the latest GOP map and questioning whether it was constitutional under the new rules, DeWine signed the GOP-backed plan in November.

Critics noted that the gerrymandered map would likely mean Republican representatives for 12 or even 13 of the 15 districts, or 80%-87% of Ohio’s residents per the census. The state’s voting populace, however, is much more closely divided than that: Former President Donald Trump beat President Joe Biden by just a 53%-45% margin in 2020.

“Once again, Gov. DeWine has failed to stand up to the extremists in his party. He could have rejected gerrymandered maps, but chose weakness instead,” Desiree Tims, the president and CEO of the progressive group Innovation Ohio, said at the time. “These rigged districts will lead to more extreme politicians who pass dangerous laws that devastate Ohio communities.”

A group of Ohioans and multiple organizations brought the state court challenge soon after.

Even after losing, DeWine defended his decision to sign the unconstitutional map and said he did not regret doing so.

“I explained why I voted the way I did,” he told the Ohio Capital-Journal on Friday. “Frankly, the Republican one fit the criteria as laid out in the Constitution better than the Democrat [sic]. I had always thought that we’d be able to reach a compromise, and by that night it was clear that neither side was going to move one inch.”

The same Republicans now have another shot at devising a map the court deems constitutional — either within the GOP-led Legislature, or if that fails, via the GOP-controlled Ohio Redistricting Commission.

DeWine suggested he would try to involve both Democrats and Republicans in the next attempt, but said he would not “tie” his hands by promising not to back another GOP-only plan.

In their dissent, three Republican justices — one of whom is Pat DeWine, the governor’s son — complained that the decision failed to set a clear standard for what is allowed in redistricting.

“The majority today declares the congressional-district plan enacted by the legislature to be unconstitutional on the basis that it ‘unduly’ favors a political party and ‘unduly’ splits governmental units. It does so without presenting any workable standard about what it means to unduly favor a political party or divide a county,” they wrote.

But in a concurrence, O’Connor warned that if the commissioners won’t put aside partisanship as required by the Constitution, “Ohioans may opt to pursue further constitutional amendment to replace the current commission with a truly independent, nonpartisan commission that more effectively distances the redistricting process from partisan politics.”

A previous version of this story stated that Ohio’s latest congressional map, which was deemed unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court, was drawn by the Ohio Redistricting Commission. It was in fact created by the state Legislature.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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