Ohio Supreme Court's split ruling recognizes redrawing as partisan


COLUMBUS — The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday narrowly upheld new maps of state House and Senate districts drawn by a panel of state officials that the court recognized as partisan in nature.

By a 4-3 vote, the justices found that a Democratic challenge involving 36 voters to the Republican-drawn maps fell short in upending the presumption that the new district boundaries were unconstitutional.

“The Ohio Constitution does not mandate political neutrality in the reapportionment of House and Senate districts, but partisan considerations cannot prevail over the requirements set forth in [the Constitution],” wrote Justice Terrence O’Donnell for the majority. “As long as the 2011 apportionment plan satisfied the constitutional requirements set forth in [the Constitution], respondents were not precluded from considering political factors in drafting it.

“And, here, political factors were considered only after the applicable constitutional and other legal requirements were met,” he wrote.

He was joined in the majority 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.

“This court does not sit as a super apportionment board to determine whether a plan presented by the relaters is better than the plan adopted by the board,” Justice O’Donnell wrote.

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’ hold 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, who may have tightened their hold on the House by one seat for a 60-39 majority.

Voters on Nov. 6 overwhelmingly rejected Issue 2, a proposed constitutional amendment to revamp this process as well as the separate method of redrawing congressional districts by the General Assembly as a whole. It would have handed both processes to a new bipartisan citizens’ panel whose members would have been directly or indirectly appointed by judges.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul Pfeifer and Yvette McGee Brown, the sole Democrat on the bench, 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 geographically compact districts and reduce the number of splits of local governments between 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.

Both sides recognized that politics does play a role in the drawing of new maps.

“Our determination should not be influenced by evidence that persons who were tasked with drawing the boundaries sent self-promoting emails proclaiming success in drawing legislative boundaries that favor the political party controlling the board,” Justice Pfeifer wrote. “That such an effort was undertaken should be presumed and is no more shocking than gambling in Rick’s Cafe.”

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said he hoped the decision will bolster support for asking voters again to change how the state redraws state legislative and congressional districts.

“In this narrow split decision, even the Republican chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court voted to strike down the gerrymandered districts Governor Kasich and his friends crafted in secret,” he said.

House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R., Medina) said the decision is “a recognition that the system works.” But he added that redistricting reform will be a subject to be considered next year by the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission created to propose changes to the Constitution to the General Assembly and to voters.

“I absolutely think we should look into it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. Had Issue 2 been more tenable, we might have had a different result.”

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.