By Darian Kanouff
On July 19, 2022, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled (in a 4-3 split) that a remedial congressional-district plan, adopted on March 2, 2022, violated Article XIX, Section 1(C)(3)(a) of the Ohio Constitution. This decision follows the court’s previous finding that the originally adopted congressional-district plan was also unconstitutional. Despite this ruling, a new plan has not been created, seemingly also in violation of the Ohio Constitution.
The General Assembly passed the first congressional-district plan in November 2021. The Supreme Court of Ohio held on January 14, 2022, that the plan violated the state constitution’s provisions that a redistricting plan may not “unduly favor or disfavor a political party or its incumbents” or “unduly split governmental units,” since the plan “unduly favored the Republican Party and disfavored the Democratic Party” and “unduly split Hamilton, Cuyahoga, and Summit Counties.” Under this plan, despite receiving merely 53% of the popular vote in recent elections, Republicans were likely to win 80% of the seats (12 out of 15). The court ordered, pursuant to the Ohio Constitution, that the General Assembly pass a new constitutionally-compliant plan within thirty days, and if the legislative body failed to do so, that the Ohio Redistricting Commission pass a plan within thirty days of the General Assembly’s failure. Because the General Assembly failed to pass a plan within 30 days, the responsibility fell to the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which passed the second congressional-district plan on March 2.
The Supreme Court of Ohio held that the March 2 plan also violated Article XIX, Section 1(C)(3)(a) of the Ohio Constitution (i.e. that the plan “unduly favored the Republican Party and disfavored the Democratic Party”). Specifically, the court found that the petitioners proved the constitutional violation “beyond a reasonable doubt” through comparative analyses and other metrics that demonstrated that the plan “packed” and “cracked” Democratic voters, turning “districts that would otherwise be strongly Democratic-leaning [into] competitive or Republican-leaning districts.” The court found that the “best-case scenario” under the March 2 plan would result in the Democratic party winning 4 of the 15 seats (27% of the seats), noting that the plan is “only slightly less favorable to the Republican Party . . . than the original plan.” The court ordered the same remedy as before, pursuant to the Ohio Constitution: that the General Assembly pass a constitutionally-compliant plan within thirty days, and if it does not, that the Ohio Redistricting Commission pass a constitutionally-compliant plan within thirty days of the General Assembly’s failure.
Thirty days after the court’s order on July 19, the General Assembly had not created a new plan; this time, however, the Ohio Redistricting Commission did not take up the task. Why not? The Ohio House Speaker, a former Ohio Supreme Court Justice, Bob Cupp, believes that the General Assembly has actually not missed its court-imposed deadline. He claims that because “congressional redistricting includes elements of U.S. Constitutional and federal law,” the legislative leaders have the option of appealing the state court’s decision to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States provide that an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States must be filed within ninety days of a state high court’s final judgment and the Ohio Constitution provides that the thirty day clock for redistricting begins on the last day on which an appeal could have been filed. Thus, he argues that the General Assembly has thirty days to create a new map beginning on October 17 (the purported deadline for appealing the case to SCOTUS). The legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, Freda Levenson, disagrees that the case is appealable to the Supreme Court of the United States. She asserts that “[b]ecause the [Supreme Court of Ohio]’s order to draw a new map ruled purely on matters of Ohio law, it is not appealable in federal court.”
While no action has been filed challenging the General Assembly’s and the Ohio Redistricting Commission’s failure to adopt a new plan within thirty and sixty days, respectively, all eyes are on the General Assembly as the supposed October 17 deadline approaches for the Ohio legislative leaders to appeal their case to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Voting rights groups and other organizations are distressed by the Republican Party’s supposed usurpation of the redistricting process, as it is in direct contrast with the Ohioans’ demonstrated preference for limiting partisan gerrymandering (more than 70% of Ohio voters voted to approve the 2018 amendment containing the constitutional provisions at issue here). However, because the Ohio Constitution’s only remedy for such violations is voiding the unconstitutional plan and requiring the General Assembly or Commission to create a new one, the Republican party had the option to “run down the clock,” resulting in the unconstitutional March 2 plan being used in the May primaries and the upcoming November election. “Running down the clock” could have another potential benefit to the Republican party: the executive director for the League of Women Voters of Ohio, Jen Miller, thinks the Republican party may be elongating this process to wait and see if the state supreme court justices elected this November will be more sympathetic to the party’s positions on line drawing.
Those disappointed in what has happened are considering further amendment to the state constitution. Among the considerations are an independent redistricting commission (as opposed to the current partisan commission, which consists of the Governor, the Auditor, the Secretary of State, and individuals appointed by the majority and minority leaders of the state legislature) or stronger checks and balances among the government branches. However, such bolstered amendments may not achieve what their proponents hope for if the independent state legislature theory (a theory which purports that all parts of the election process, including redistricting, fall solely under the purview of the state legislature, and are not subject to interference from the other branches) is adopted by the Supreme Court of the United States this term in Moore v. Harper.