Ohio redistribution battle heads to state Supreme Court



COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – The form of government of the state of Ohio for the next decade will be at stake on Wednesday as the Ohio Supreme Court hears arguments over new legislative maps which, according to the rights of voters, and Democratic groups, are gerrymandered to favor Republicans.

Lawyers for the state will defend the district boundaries, which are likely to retain Republicans qualified majorities at the Statehouse, as constitutional. Judges can either confirm the cards or send them back to the Ohio Redistribution Commission for redrawing.

The dispute arises amid the process of redrawing maps of legislative and congressional districts that states must undertake once a decade to reflect changes from the U.S. census. Wednesday’s arguments relate only to legislative maps, not to U.S. House districts.

Rights groups and Democrats – the plaintiffs – argue that the new limits undermine voters’ rights. They hope the court chooses to explain why the map is unconstitutional, so the GOP-dominated Redistribution Commission has clear guidelines to create “something fair for everyone,” said lawyer Patrick Yingling. of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.

When Ohio voters approved a new legislative card-drawing system in 2015, they gave the High Court with its 4-3 Republican majority exclusive jurisdiction to resolve card disputes. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a 70-year-old moderate Republican who will leave court at the end of the year due to age limits, is seen as a potentially crucial swing vote.

Separately, the legislative cards were challenged in Federal District Court on December 1 by two black voters in the Youngstown area. Senior pastor of the new Bethel Baptist Church, Kenneth Simon, and activist Helen Youngblood argue that the cards violate voting rights law by denying African Americans the ability to elect a candidate of their choice. The fate of their lawsuit is not clear, however, given that federal courts have not been given jurisdiction under Ohio’s new redistribution process.

Three separate cases challenging the cards in the Ohio Supreme Court were consolidated for Wednesday’s arguments. Groups involved in the challenges include the legal arm of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the ACLU, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, CAIR-Ohio, the League of Women Voters and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

The court gave each party – with its lineup of several lawyers – 30 minutes to present their case, which is double the usual time. A decision will come quickly, but probably not immediately, as time is of the essence. The 2022 application deadline is February 2.

The role of the Supreme Court is another step in a new redistribution process that has been strewn with confusion and disagreement along the way.

The maps in question – laying out the lines for the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate – were passed to the new Redistribution Commission just after the deadline. All three state-wide panel officials – Governor Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Auditor Keith Faber, all Republicans – voiced opposition to the lines, but all voted yes.

Minority Democrats, who play a central role in approving a 10-year plan, have never presented their own card to the commission, deferring their chances to the courts, according to documents filed in the case. The two Democratic members of the seven-member Redistribution Commission voted no, so the disputed cards are expected to last only four years, rather than a full decade.

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