In upholding legislative districts drawn by a Republican-dominated apportionment board following the 2010 census, a sharply divided Ohio Supreme Court carved out wide boundaries for an inherently political process. By setting a high standard of proof for challengers and giving deference to previous lines, the high court, in effect, sanctioned the continuation of a deeply flawed process.
“This court does not sit as a super apportionment board to determine whether a plan presented by the [challengers] is better than the plan adopted by the board,” wrote Justice Terrence O’Donnell, rejecting a challenge by Democratic voters. “Instead, we determine whether the board acted within the broad discretion conferred upon it.”
O’Donnell, writing for a 4-3 majority, said the challengers must show a plan is unconstitutional “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a standard that applies in criminal cases. He also allowed room for violations of language discouraging the splitting of political subdivisions, as long as other requirements, such as equalizing population or following existing district lines, were being met.
Justices Paul Pfeifer and Yvette McGee Brown (the court’s only Democrat) delivered strong dissents. They were joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, their helpful, bipartisan analysis providing context for much-needed improvements.
O’Donnell is correct that the constitution “does not explicitly require political neutrality, or for that matter, politically competitive districts or representational fairness.” But McGee Brown argued persuasively that the Republican majority on the apportionment board (made up of the governor, auditor, secretary of state and a legislative representative from each party) ignored clear requirements to produce compact districts that avoid splitting political subdivisions as much as possible.
In all, more than 250 political subdivisions were split by the board, producing misshapen districts that badly skewed the results of the 2012 elections. In the Ohio House, for example, Democratic candidates gained about 56,000 more votes than Republicans, but the House will be dominated by Republicans, perhaps by 60 seats to 39 seats.
In other words, the apportionment board went too far. What the dissenting opinions remind is that adequate rules are in place for drawing competitive lines, but they have been stretched beyond recognition by decades of partisan manipulation.
That, in turn, points to the straightforward reforms championed by Jon Husted, the secretary of state, and others, that would create a bipartisan apportionment board required to adopt districts by a supermajority vote, forcing compromise.
There is broad agreement the current process is broken. What’s needed is a fix, the sooner the better, or long before the next census approaches.