Cleveland Plain Dealer: Redistricting rejection an opportunity to do it right

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Although disfigured with a touch of partisan sniping and a clear conflict of interest, the Ohio Supreme Court made the right call Wednesday — arguably, given the facts, the inevitable call — in junking gerrymandered General Assembly districts proposed by the Republican-run Ohio Redistricting Commission.

But now that the state high court has reaffirmed the people’s will and words in its 4-3 ruling, the Ohio Redistricting Commission has just ten days to get it right and submit new maps, per the decision.

Getting it right should mean conducting the entire 10-day process in public, with all seven members of the Redistricting Commission — five Republicans and two Democrats — before the public each and every day as they draw the maps and discuss them.

Having to redraw the state legislative maps quickly should not mean a return to the Statehouse’s shadows, which is where the districts killed Wednesday were drawn.

To succeed, it should be bathed in the sunshine of public scrutiny for all ten days.

The revised districts should also be the work of the commission itself. No more legislative backroom map-drawing, bypassing what should be an open and public process. Compromise will come most readily and easily when legislators of both parties are obligated to speak and act in public view.

What has to change with the maps?

In its 4-3 decision, the high court upheld not just the state constitution, but also the voice of the people, through their power of referendum, in demanding an end to partisan, backroom map-drawing.

Instead of Ohio House districts that would award Republicans 61 to 68 of 99 seats, the court’s majority opinion found that constitutionally drawn districts would likely lead to 53 to 54 GOP seats (compared to 64 now). Similar flaws were found with the rejected state Senate districts.

The best way to fix the maps quickly is to fix the process — by rejecting the narrow secrecy with which the disallowed maps were drawn.

Evidence presented in the depositions that led to Wednesday’s ruling made it clear the districts the court junked were essentially a closed-door collaboration between Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Bob Cupp, both Lima Republicans, and two Republican legislative employees, with Huffman the dominant player.

Cupp and Huffman are among the five Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission. The other three Republicans — Gov. Mike DeWine, State Auditor Keith Faber and Secretary of State Frank LaRose — plus both commission Democrats (Akron’s father-and-daughter legislative duo of state Sen. Vernon Sykes and state Rep. Emilia Sykes) were frozen out of meaningful roles in the remapping process.

That has to change, too.

Of course, even the high court was not immune to partisan finger-pointing; some of that backroom rancor crept into the majority decision and the dissent.

One might be tempted to call the majority ruling bipartisan: Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, joined with Democratic Justices Jennifer Brunner, Michael Donnelly and Melody Stewart, with Justice Stewart writing the lead opinion.

Yet in suggesting that the three dissenting Republican justices had, through their “dire predictions and what appears to be unreasonable characterizations,” risked shaking “the public’s confidence in our court,” the lead majority ruling drew back the curtain on some evident acrimony behind the scenes.

The three dissenters were Justices Sharon Kennedy, who wrote the lead dissent, concurred in by R. Patrick (Pat) DeWine, the governor’s son, and Patrick Fischer, who wrote a separate dissent. Justices Kennedy and DeWine took their own potshots, accusing the majority “by way of insinuation, [of suggesting] that the dissenters’ views are politically motivated…”

Yet, the real black marks go to Justice DeWine, for refusing to recuse from the matter despite his obvious conflict of interest, siding publicly, through his opinion, with his father, Gov. DeWine, a defendant in the lawsuits before the high court. If there are no other consequences for Pat DeWine, voters should remember this abrogation of judicial ethics if Justice DeWine pursues his re-election bid this year.

Chief Justice O’Connor, a Summit County Republican who cannot run for re-election because of Ohio’s judicial age limits, proved to be the swing vote. But in a separate opinion, she suggested Ohio voters might want to try to wring more toxic partisanship out of the process by revisiting at the ballot box the question of who draws Ohio’s legislative districts.

“Having now seen firsthand that the current Ohio Redistricting Commission - comprised of statewide elected officials and partisan legislators - is seemingly unwilling to put aside partisan concerns as directed by the people’s vote,” O’Connor wrote, “Ohioans may opt to pursue further constitutional amendment to replace the current commission with a truly independent, nonpartisan commission that more effectively distances the redistricting process from partisan politics.” Brunner concurred in O’Connor’s opinion.

The immediate challenge is to get new state legislative boundaries drawn in the next 10 days. Time is short. The Ohio Redistricting Commission needs to get to work without delay.

And this time, the commission should do it right, performing its duties every day of those ten days with all seven members participating in the salutary light of public meetings — and public scrutiny.

Cleveland Plain Dealer

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