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Ohio Supreme Court overturns partisan district maps

Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court was divided 5-4 in the decision, with Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor breaking from her fellow Republicans.

In one of the most consequential rulings of the current redistricting cycle, the Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the General Assembly’s new state legislative maps, saying the plan violates the Ohio Constitution’s ban on partisan gerrymandering.

The justices, in a 4-3 decision, ordered the Ohio Redistricting Commission to start over and produce maps for the state House and Senate in accordance with the requirements laid out in the state Constitution.

The majority opinion found that, based on statewide voting history, the maps should hew closer to an expected 54 percent share for Republicans, rather than 70 percent expected in the maps that have now been overruled.

“[T]he commission is required to attempt to draw a plan in which the statewide proportion of Republican-leaning districts to Democratic-leaning districts closely corresponds to those percentages,” Justice Melody Stewart wrote for the majority, which included three Democratic justices and one Republican who broker with her party: Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

O’Connor, in her concurring opinion, highlighted the work done by independent redistricting commissions in other states. The Ohio Redistricting Commission is made up of six state lawmakers, four of whom are Democrats.

“Having now seen firsthand that the current Ohio Redistricting Commission — comprised of statewide elected officials and partisan legislators — is seemingly unwilling to put aside partisan concerns as directed by the people’s vote, 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,” O’Connor wrote.

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Under Ohio’s Constitution, maps approved along partisan lines are only in effect for four years, rather than the typical 10. The commission now needs to restart the process, with a new plan required within 10 days. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is also reviewing Ohio’s congressional map, which was similarly approved along partisan lines.

“It’s worth flagging that this is the first time a pure partisan effect provision has been enforced by a state supreme court,” Harvard law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos wrote for the Election Law Blog. “The court’s analysis vindicates all the effort that has been poured into enacting these provisions at the state level (and proposing them at “the federal level).”

The lawsuit, brought by the League of Women Voters of Ohio, was among a number of suits challenging Ohio’s new maps.

Following a 2019 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, states are the final arbiters of partisan gerrymandering. When asked to rule on congressional district maps created by Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland, a 5-4 majority determined the federal judicial system had no role to play.

“None of the proposed tests for evaluating partisan gerrymandering claims meets the need for a limited and precise standard that is judicially discernable and manageable," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, from which all four Democratic justices dissented.

Therefore, opponents of partisan gerrymandering have turned to state courts. Ballotpedia is tracking approximately 50 lawsuits, some of which focus on process while others target state or congressional district maps.

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