SCOTUS Ruling Means Ohio's Gerrymandered Map Likely Remains For 2020

Northeast Ohio's current congressional map
Northeast Ohio's current congressional map. [Ohio Secretary of State]

Updated 1:14 p.m., 6/27/19

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected challenges against two congressional maps in Maryland and North Carolina on Thursday, deciding that questions of partisan gerrymandering are outside the scope of federal courts.

Their decision likely spells the end for a similar challenge from Ohio.

Voting rights groups challenged Ohio's congressional maps, arguing state GOP lawmakers crafted a set of boundaries that would ensure Republicans controlled the majority of seats. Since maps were redrawn following the 2010 census, Republicans have maintained a 12 to 4 seat advantage over Democrats in Ohio’s congressional delegation.

A district court panel sided with the challengers on three different claims tied to the First and Fourteenth amendments, throwing the congressional map out as unconstitutional. The judges ordered a new map drawn by June 14. After an appeal from Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay halting that action while it considered the cases out of North Carolina and Maryland. Ohio does not redistrict again until 2022, under a new process approved by voters that was Issue 1 on the ballot last year. 

In a 5 to 4 decision written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, jr., the court held that "there are no legal standards discernible in the Constitution for making such judments." Instead, Roberts writes, it's up to states or Congress to establish laws governing redistricting.

The decision sends both the Maryland and North Carolina cases back to lower courts, saying they should be dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction.

Ohio's Republican lawmakers hailed the ruling as a victory.

"This comes as no surprise," writes Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, one of the defendants in the Ohio case. "I appreciate the court confirming that Ohio's congressional map is valid and constitutional. The court confirmed, as we have said all along, this is not a question for the court but a political quesiton that is properly left to the states."

Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron) said the ruling "is a step back in the fight against unfair districts," while Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper called the decision "disappointing."

"But it doesn't alter the factual finding of the U.S. Southern District of Ohio: that Republicans have cynically and secretly rigged Ohio elections for a decade," Pepper writes.

From the outset, state officials have argued the courts shouldn’t wade into questions about partisanship in map drawing. They have also pointed to Democratic state lawmakers voting in favor of the map at the time as evidence against a partisan process.

Ohio Democrats, however, were less than enthusiastic about the Thursday decision.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), called it a slap in the face to Ohio voters.

“The Supreme Court failed Ohioans today. Voters should be picking their representatives, not politicians picking their voters,” said Brown, in a press release. “This Supreme Court has repeatedly put its thumb on the scale of justice for corporations over workers, Wall Street over consumers, drug companies over patients and today politics over voters.”

Challengers in Ohio and other states have proposed a three-fold test for legislative maps, pulled from racial gerrymandering rulings. That test asks whether there was partisan intent, partisan effect, and whether those two are outweighed by some legitimate legislative purpose.

"A permissible intent — securing partisan advantage — does not become constitutionally impermissible, like racial discrimination, whenthat permissible intent 'predominates,'" Roberts writes.

One way or another and regardles of this ruling, Ohio's congressional maps will be redrawn following the 2020 Census, under a new set of guidelines approved by voters last year. The amendment, which won the backing of some voting rights advocates, would create a bipartisan process for redistricting and establish strict rules for district lines.

"Thanks to Ohio voters, and no thanks to the Supreme Court, the corrupt practice of gerrymandering remains in its final days in Ohio," Pepper writes. "Ohio's Constitution requires fair districts for '22."

Secretary of State Frank LaRose has said on multiple occasions that he'll work to administer fair elections in 2020 "pending the conclusion of the judicial process."

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