COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Supreme Court declared GOP-drawn legislative maps invalid on Wednesday, agreeing with voting rights advocates that the lines were unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
In a 4-3 ruling, the court sent the maps back to the Ohio Redistricting Commission to take another crack at complying with provisions of a 2015 constitutional amendment. That amendment requires there be an attempt at avoiding partisan favoritism. Justices gave the panel 10 days and retained jurisdiction to review their handiwork.
The dispute comes amid the process of redrawing legislative and congressional district maps that states must undertake once per decade to reflect changes from the U.S. Census.
This was the powerful Redistricting Commission's first time drawing new legislative maps of 99 Ohio House and 33 Ohio Senate districts. Its members — five Republicans and two Democrats — failed to arrive at bipartisan consensus, so the map they approved Sept. 16 along party lines was set to last only four years, rather than 10 years.
It is not entirely clear what will happen if the commission — which has a poor record so far of hitting its deadlines — fails to meet the court's target date.
The panel's two Democrats, Sen. Vernon Sykes and Rep. Emilia Sykes, his daughter, said the ruling confirmed Democrats' contention that the lines were "unfair, unrepresentative and unconstitutional."
Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, a member of the commission and whose son was among Wednesday's dissenting justices, pledged in a statement to "work with my fellow Redistricting Commission members on revised maps that are consistent with the court's order."
Writing for the majority, Justice Melody Stewart, a Democrat, said the maps favored one party and didn't meet the amendment's standard that the districts must be proportionally distributed to reflect Ohio's 54% Republican, 46% Democratic voter mix.
Moderate Republican Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, who at 70 years old must leave the court Dec. 31 due to age limits, provided a pivotal swing vote, joining the court's three Democrats in a victory for national voting-rights and Democratic groups.
Writing separately, O'Connor reminded Ohioans that amending their Constitution again is an option if they think the new system they have put in place has failed them — either because it led to gerrymandered maps or, as the court's minority asserts, that it gave the court no teeth to rule against them. Ohio could have a nonpartisan redistricting commission, for example.
Republicans who controlled the map-drawing process had argued the commission met its constitutional mandates by complying with a host of other protocols, which made the partisan favoritism and proportionality provisions moot.
In their dissents, the court's three remaining Republicans argued that the majority was grasping at a "sweeping power of judicial review" not available to the court under the provisions of the 2015 constitutional amendment.
"The text of the Ohio Constitution is clear, and given the allegations in the complaints, this court lacks the authority to act as requested by the petitioners bringing these cases," Justice Patrick Fischer wrote.
The decision impacts three separate lawsuits against the maps brought on behalf of Ohio voters by a host of national groups, including the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, CAIR-Ohio and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.
Freda Levenson, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, said the decision sent a clear message to lawmakers that they can't "put politics over people."
"The Ohio Supreme Court's decision is huge," she said in a statement. "It not only orders the immediate drawing of a new, constitutional map, but it also validates that Ohio's voter-enacted constitutional prohibition that partisan gerrymandering is not merely 'aspirational' — it has real teeth. This bodes well for the 2022 election cycle — and beyond."
Alicia Bannon, director of the Judiciary Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which helped represent plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits, said the court held the commission accountable.
"The General Assembly maps entrenched a GOP supermajority and flouted clear partisan fairness requirements in the Ohio constitution – abuses that especially impacted Ohio's Black, Muslim and immigrant communities," she said in a statement. "The commission is now tasked with drawing replacement maps. We will be watching to ensure that all Ohioans get the fair representation they are due."
It took the court more than a month following Dec. 8 oral arguments to turn around its ruling in the case, adding to the time pressure on the 2022 elections. The filing dates for legislative candidates is Feb. 2.