COLUMBUS — In a split decision, the Ohio Supreme Court today upheld new maps of state House and Senate districts drawn by a panel of state officials that the court recognized as partisan in nature.
The court’s majority found that a Democratic challenge to the Republican-drawn maps fell short in proving they were unconstitutional.
“In making our determination, we accord the apportionment board the deference it is afforded by the constitution in attempting to take into account various federal and state requirements by placing the burden on one challenging an apportionment plan to establish its unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt,” Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote for the majority.
“Relators have failed to adduce sufficient, credible proof to carry this heavy burden,” he wrote.
He was joined by Justices Judith Lanzinger and Robert Cupp, as well as 3rd District Court of Appeals Judge John Willamowski, a Republican former state representative from Lima sitting in for Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.
Ohio’s 99 House districts and 33 Senate districts are redrawn every 10 years to adjust for population shifts reflected in the latest U.S. Census. The maps are drawn by a state apportionment board consisting of the governor, state auditor, secretary of state, and two legislators from opposite parties.
In 2011, that process was controlled 4-1 by Republicans, and Democrats charged that district lines were manipulated to maximize the Republicans’ holds on each chamber. The dust has yet to fully settle from the Nov. 6 election, the first to use the new districts, but it appears that the Senate will continue to be dominated 23-10 by Republicans while the House GOP may have tightened its hold by one seat for a new 60-39 majority.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul Pfeifer and Yvette McGee Brown dissented.
“There is no basis in the Ohio Constitution, in fairness, in justice, or in political reality for this court to cloak the apportionment board’s actions with a presumption of constitutionality that can be overcome only by proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Justice Pfeifer wrote. “In doing so, the majority opinion is just plain wrong. It relegates this court to the status of a pawn in a high-stakes political chess match.”
He argued that the court should have ordered the five-member state apportionment board to meet again to consider maps that would include more compact districts and reduce the number of splits of local governments into different districts.
He noted that Justice McGee Brown found 39 of Ohio’s 88 counties were divided between districts and those 39 counties were divided 74 times.
“Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is typically necessary only in criminal cases,” Justice Pfeifer wrote. “Such a high burden of proof in the current constitutional matter turns this court into a rubber stamp, not the guardian of the constitution that it is designed to be.”