The Ohio Supreme Court struck down the state's congressional district map Friday, saying Republicans violated the Ohio Constitution by drawing districts that favored GOP candidates.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor was, once again, a key vote in the 4-3 decision to reject the map, which could have given Republicans as much as a 12-3 advantage in a state that voted for President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, twice.
That violated language overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2018 to prevent a map that unduly favored one party or its incumbents.
"When the dealer stacks the deck in advance, the house usually wins," wrote Justice Michael Donnelly in the court's opinion.
Read the opinion below.
Now, Ohio lawmakers will be sent back to the drawing board to craft a new map within 30 days. If they can't reach a solution, the Ohio Redistricting Commission – a panel of statewide elected officials and state lawmakers – will have 30 days to do so. Mapmakers face a tight turnaround because candidates must file paperwork to run by March 4.
Those who pushed for redistricting reform cheered the decision as a victory for democracy. The decision came just two days after the Ohio Supreme Court struck down state House and Senate maps for partisan gerrymandering.
"Once again, Ohio's high court steps in to defend the Ohio Constitution, our representative democracy, and the right of every Ohio to have fair districts," said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. "We call on the Ohio General Assembly to finally put voters first, rather than their short-sighted and selfish political interests."
'Infused with undue partisan bias'
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Republican lawmakers gerrymandered a map that favored GOP candidates over Democratic ones. Legislators also split Hamilton, Cuyahoga and Summit counties unnecessarily, the court concluded.
“The General Assembly produced a plan that is infused with undue partisan bias and that is incomprehensibly more extremely biased than the 2011 plan that it replaced,” Donnelly wrote.
The court concluded that small tweaks to the map wouldn’t suffice – an overhaul was needed to correct it.
“This plan defies correction on a simple district-by-district basis,” Donnelly wrote. “We, therefore, see no recourse but to invalidate the entire congressional-district plan.”
Expert testimony provided as part of the lawsuits revealed that Republican mapmakers packed and cracked Democratic voters in Ohio’s largest cities to create districts that were safer for GOP candidates, Donnelly said.
Dr. Kosuke Imai, a professor at Harvard University, concluded that Republicans were expected to win 2.8 more seats under Ohio’s map than under simulated plans. Most simulated plans created eight or nine seats that favored the GOP instead of 11 or more.
Donnelly’s opinion also pushed back against Republican lawmakers’ key defense of their map: that voters wanted competitive districts and their map fulfilled that wish. “Article XIX does not require, prohibit, or even mention competitive districts,” he wrote.
The court honed in on three counties that were unfairly divided: Hamilton, Cuyahoga and Summit.
“The enacted plan splits Hamilton County into three districts for no apparent reason other than to confer an undue partisan advantage on the Republican Party,” Donnelly wrote.
Hamilton County, where 57% of voters voted for President Joe Biden, was divided into three districts that favor Republicans. Alternative plans split Hamilton County only once, keeping Cincinnati in a district wholly inside the county rather than combined with Warren County.
And the enacted map cut Akron off from its eastern Democratic-leaning suburbs and instead linked it with “highly Republican rural areas up to 70 miles away.”
O'Connor: a key vote, again
O’Connor criticized her fellow Republicans in a four-paragraph concurring opinion.
She said Justices Sharon Kennedy, Patrick Fischer and Patrick DeWine too easily dismissed evidence offered by the map challengers’ experts. In the trio’s dissent, they called metrics used by the experts as “sleight of hand.”
O’Connor retorted: “No magician’s trick can hide what the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates: The map statistically presents such a partisan advantage that it unduly favors the Republican Party.”
In a joint dissent with no lead author, the trio of GOP justices said the majority declared the maps unconstitutional “without presenting any workable standard about what it means to unduly favor a political party or divide a county.”
In a footnote, the majority called the no-lead-author dissent unprecedented. “This authorship label has never been used by this court. Its use now, without explanation by the dissent, is unusual and inexplicable.”
Kennedy is running for chief justice against Democrat Jennifer Brunner. DeWine is the son of Gov. Mike DeWine, who serves on the Ohio Redistricting Commission and signed the law enacting the congressional maps.
Why the map was challenged
Two groups filed lawsuits against the map, one from former Attorney General Eric Holder's National Redistricting Action Fund and another from the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the Ohio Chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute and several individuals.
The map was drawn by Republican staff members in consultation with a few lawmakers and passed without Democratic support. Because the map had no buy-in from the minority party, it was slated to last four years. Ohio also lost one congressional seat because its population grew at a slower rate than the nation's.
Lawmakers could draw a new map that lasts for 10 years if they can agree on a bipartisan solution.
Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Akron Beacon Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Redistricting: Ohio Supreme Court strikes down congressional map