CLEVELAND, Ohio - Though the U.S. Supreme Court took a pass earlier this year on deciding the issue of when political gerrymandering has gone too far - ending a related Ohio federal case - critics of severe gerrymandering elsewhere have for a second time won in state court.
Could advocates in Ohio be next in going to a state court for a remedy?
Not likely. No suit is pending. Time is short before the 2020 election. And voter-approved reforms will be used to govern the creation of new Ohio maps for the 2022 election.
But the ruling out of North Carolina on Tuesday does provide a potential guide for advocates of change across the country to go to their state courts in attempts to declare illegal maps designed to virtually guarantee election results in favor of one political party or the other.
The three-judge panel in North Carolina expanded on what is deemed to make gerrymandering illegal beyond what the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on in 2018 in tossing congressional maps there, said Dan Vicuna, national redistricting manager for Common Cause, which had filed the North Carolina suit.
In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court ruled that its congressional map violated the state constitution’s free and equal elections clause, Vicuna said.
Ohio is not among the 28 states with such a clause, Vicuna said.
But in North Carolina, the judges also agreed with Common Cause in that the gerrymandered districts violated separate equal protection and freedom of speech clauses in the state constitution.
Ohio’s constitution does have areas covering equal protection and freedom of speech. Such language is similar from state to state, but Vicuna said he hasn’t studied Ohio’s constitution to see how it may or may not differ from other states.
What happened to Ohio’s case
A three-judge federal panel in May unanimously ruled Ohio’s congressional district map violated the U.S. Constitution and that it must be redrawn in time for the 2020 election. The suit was filed a year earlier by the Ohio League of Women Voters and others, with legal representation from the American Civil Liberties Union. The state appealed.
But before Ohio’s appeal could be heard, the U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled in gerrymandering cases out of Maryland and North Carolina that the federal court system was no place to decide these issues, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that gerrymandering claims “present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”
This led to a quick dismissal of the Ohio ruling, leaving in place the current congressional district map.
The gerrymandered Ohio and North Carolina maps were created by Republicans, to the disadvantage of Democrats. In Maryland, Republicans were upset with a map approved by Democrats in control.
What’s next in Ohio
Catherine Turcer, executive director for Common Cause Ohio, said her focus was on success for reform and following how it plays out. Ohio Constitution changes were approved by landslide votes in 2018 to reform the congressional district process and in 2014 for the Statehouse district process.
The new rules, forcing more input from the minority party and limiting how counties and in some cases cities can be split, will be put in place for the next set of maps that will be used beginning in 2022. The current maps are to be used for one more election, in 2020.
“One of the things that makes me feel really good is that we now have good protections in the Ohio Constitution,” Turcer said. “So going forward, if there is a gerrymander that is completely unfair, it can be challenged.”
Freda Levenson, the legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, who was involved in the federal lawsuit, could not be reached Wednesday for comment.