COLUMBUS — A frustrated Ohio Supreme Court rejected Republican-drawn Statehouse maps for a fifth time Wednesday, extending the string of GOP defeats in a redistricting process that has ground the state's legislative primaries to a halt.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor was clearly angered by the Republican-dominated Ohio Redistricting Commission’s decision to resubmit maps that the high court found unconstitutional once before, calling it “a stunning rebuke of the rule of law.” Still, the court denied a request by voting rights and Democratic groups to hold commissioners in contempt, concluding, as it has before, that it has no power under the law to do so.
The court ordered the seven-member panel to reconvene and pass “entirely new” maps that meet constitutional requirements by June 3. Ohio's map fight comes amid the once-per-decade political mapmaking process that all states must undertake to reflect population changes from the U.S. Census.
The state is also grappling for the first time with new rules for drawing the maps, which have presented legal and logistical surprises at every turn. A combination of Republican foot-dragging and legal wrangling has extended redistricting well into the 2022 election season and completely stymied Ohio’s legislative primaries. Maps were supposed to be completed last fall.
O'Connor, a Republican, faulted a separate, federal three-judge panel for making her court's job more difficult. She said the judges effectively rewarded the redistricting commission's inaction when they signaled that they will impose the rejected legislative maps favored by Republicans this Friday if the state cases aren't resolved by then.
“The federal court provided the Republican commission members not only a roadmap of how to avoid discharging their duties but also a green light to further delay these proceedings" by stating its intentions, she wrote.
It was not immediately clear how the conflicting court proclamations would unfold, given that the federal court was set to act Friday and the state court process now extends a week beyond that.
State Sen. Vernon Sykes, the redistricting commission's Democratic co-chair, said he is committed to meeting the court's June 3 deadline.
“We are fortunate that the Ohio Supreme Court insists on forcing the Redistricting Commission to comply with the redistricting reforms overwhelmingly adopted by voters," he said in a statement. “However, to this day, Ohioans don’t have state legislative maps that comply with our Constitution.”
A 2015 constitutional amendment, passed overwhelmingly by voters, required the commission to at least attempt to avoid partisan favoritism and to try to proportionally distribute districts to reflect Ohio’s political makeup, which is split at about 54% Republican, 46% Democrat.
Republican commissioners have argued the set of maps they resubmitted to the court most recently met those requirements. By GOP calculations, the boundaries would create a 54-45 Republican majority in the Ohio House and an 18-15 Republican majority in Ohio Senate. Democrats have challenged their numbers, saying many districts counted in Democrats' column are very closely divided.
Republicans contend that passing entirely new maps at this late date isn't practical if a primary is to be held Aug. 2.
O’Connor, who must leave the court Dec. 31 due to age limits, again provided the pivotal swing vote in Wednesday's 4-3 ruling, joining the court’s three Democrats. The ruling was a victory for national voting-rights and Democratic groups. O’Connor had joined Democrats in court rulings against the first four sets of legislative maps and against the state’s congressional district map.