COLUMBUS, Ohio — In 2015, Ohio voters overwhelmingly voted for anti-gerrymandering rules, with the goal to draw new legislative maps that do not unfairly benefit one party.
"This is not about gerrymandering in favor of Democrats," Ben Stafford, an attorney representing a suit filed by Statehouse candidate Bria Bennett, told the Ohio Supreme Court Wednesday. "It's about not gerrymandering in favor of Republicans."
The court heard the arguments regarding the state's General Assembly maps, and now must consider how to interpret the reforms and whether the commission must follow all of them — or view them as mere suggestions.
"The only way the enacted plan can stand is if the respondents convince you that Section 6 consists of empty words that they were free to ignore," Freda Levenson, defending League of Women Voters of Ohio, said.
The plaintiffs say with maps as they're currently drawn the GOP would likely win 66% of seats in the General Assembly, thus sealing a veto-proof majority. Before voting for the plan, Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose questioned its constitutionality:
His characterization, based on the emails that are in evidence, is that the plan is "asinine," Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor noted of LaRose's own words. The secretary's office today said he couldn't comment, as the matter is under litigation.
The attorney hired by the Republican Statehouse and Senate leaders to defend the maps claims the new process worked, and that Ohio is seeing fairer maps because of it.
"There's been no allegation, certainly no proof, that any of those anti-gerrymandering requirements were violated," Phillip Strach said.
But the Republican O'Connor — seen as a possible swing vote on the 4-3 court — seemed skeptical.
"Let's say we disagree with you and this court orders the commission to start over," she pondered. "Then what happens?"
"This court then has to provide some guidance to the commission," Strach responded. "Someone could go to federal court and say, 'The state of Ohio can't get their stuff together, so federal judge, you please draw the map.' ... That could happen."
O'Connor voted against the current state maps back in 2011 when the conservative majority upheld them. There's no deadline for the court to act here, but the filing deadline for the May primary elections is Feb. 2.
That's when these maps are supposed to go into effect, so it's expected the court will respond soon, working within that timeline.