Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS: The Ohio Supreme Court let stand a newly drawn state legislative map Tuesday in a defeat for Democrats.
In a 4-3 ruling, the divided high court upheld the map approved last year on grounds that Ohio’s Constitution does not require political neutrality in the process.
Democrats, who brought the challenge on behalf of a group of voters, had argued the five-member Ohio Apportionment Board intentionally sought political advantage with the maps as prohibited in the constitution, in a maneuver known as gerrymandering.
Republicans in the case argued the state constitution asks the map-drawing board to consider minimizing county, township, city and precinct splits but sets no absolute rule.
The court ruled that opponents of the maps didn’t present convincing evidence the Republican-controlled apportionment board manipulated the districts for GOP political gain.
“The role of a supreme court in considering constitutional challenges to an apportionment plan is restricted to determining whether relators have met their burden to prove that the plan adopted by the board is unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt,” Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote for the majority.
In his dissent, Justice Paul Pfeifer said the Constitution does not set the stringent proof standard perceived by the majority.
“In order to justify its finding of constitutionality, the majority opinion expresses two conclusions of questionable legitimacy; these anchors of the majority opinion fail the tests of logic and fairness,” he wrote. “First the majority opinion erects a nearly insurmountable barrier to a successful constitutional challenge by assigning to the board’s actions a blanket presumption of constitutionality and requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt to establish that the plan fails to meet all constitutional requirements.”
Pfeifer went on, “Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is typically necessary only in criminal cases. Such a high burden of proof in the current constitutional matter turns this court into a rubber stamp, not the guardian of the constitution that it is designed to be.”
O’Donnell was joined in the majority by justices Judith Ann Lanzinger, Robert Cupp and John Willamowski, sitting in for Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, who had recused herself for unstated reasons.
Pfeifer, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, and Justice Yvette McGee Brown, the court’s only Democrat, dissented. O’Connor signed both Pfeifer’s and McGee Brown’s dissenting opinions.
Court’s limits also a factor
Besides the proof burden, the majority cited limits in the court’s ability to judge legislative maps.
“This court does not sit as a super apportionment board to determine whether a plan presented by the relators is better than the plan adopted by the board,” O’Donnell wrote. “Instead, we determine whether the board acted within the broad discretion conferred upon it by the provisions of [the Constitution] when it adopted its plan.”
Ohio, like other states, redraws its congressional and legislative maps once every decade to reflect population shift records in the U.S. Census.
The litigation says the latest state legislative map of 99 House and 33 Senate districts split cities, counties and other community units more than 250 times. Democrats said a more neutral map was possible that split only 30, rather than 50, of Ohio’s 88 counties.
Board under GOP control
The Apportionment Board was made up of the governor, secretary of state, state auditor, Senate president and House minority party leader. In 2011, four of five of those were Republicans. The panel voted 4-1 along party lines in September 2011 on the map challenged in the lawsuit. During 2012 elections run using the new district boundaries, the GOP retained majorities in both legislative chambers.
The court had delayed its ruling to keep from affecting the 2012 election — allowing the disputed map to remain in place for legislative races this fall.
Voters First, a coalition of voter advocacy groups that advanced an unsuccessful 2012 ballot proposal to overhaul Ohio’s map-making process, found in a post-election analysis that 97 of 99 Ohio House districts went to the party favored by new district lines. They pointed to the review as proof that map makers, not voters, control Ohio elections.
House Democratic Leader Armond Budish, who served on the apportionment board and was not sued, criticized Tuesday’s decision for legalizing a system of political self-interest.
“This does not serve the broad interest of Ohio voters,” Budish said. “Instead, it perpetuates a broken political system which will continue to favor extremism, not responsible governing.”
Budish said the ruling signals an urgent need to reform Ohio’s redistricting process — a statement where he and Republican House Speaker William Batchelder appeared in agreement.
Batchelder praised the ruling as “a recognition that the system works,” but left open the question of whether Ohio’s way of drawing lines could be amended.
“I absolutely think we should look into it,” he told reporters after a House session Tuesday. “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Batchelder said he wants the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission, a bipartisan panel charged with reviewing Ohio’s constitution, to hear testimony on how the state draws its political boundaries.
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.