Ohio high court hears redistricting case

Columbus Dispatch, The (OH) - Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In a case that could have huge political ramifications, the Ohio Supreme Court must decide whether Republicans went too far in how they sliced governmental entities across the state while drawing new legislative districts last year. 

Arguing that Republicans "repeatedly and dramatically" violated the Constitution, Democrats tried to persuade the court yesterday to force the Republican-dominated state Apportionment Board to start over. 

The five-member board, which includes the governor, secretary of state and state auditor, approved new Ohio House and Senate maps last year based on new census figures. The districts were designed to help the GOP hold on to its legislative majorities for the next decade. 

In doing so, Kevin Hamilton, an attorney with the law firm Perkins Coie representing Democrats, said the board split more than 250 governmental entities, far more than necessary. To prove the point, Democrats submitted their own maps that, they say, split only 30 counties instead of the 50 under the GOP maps, and far fewer townships and municipalities. 

"The record is rife with evidence that the board took into account political considerations, adding portions of counties that didn't need to be split, for purposes of increasing partisan advantage," Hamilton said. 

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer said it was no surprise that the map was drawn to give Republicans a political edge. "There is no prohibition or guidance in the Constitution that prohibits that effort, is there?" 

Hamilton said: "There is certainly no argument to be had that political partisan advantage can be used as an excuse to violate the Constitution." 

Republicans say Democrats are greatly overstating splits in the maps. Mark Braden, the Republican-hired counsel for the Apportionment Board, told justices that there is no requirement in the Constitution that splits of governmental entities be minimized. He said the maps are "totally consistent with 40 years of precedent." 

"Is that your argument that they ignored the mandate of the Constitution before, so it's OK to ignore it now?" Pfeifer asked. Braden said no, and noted that of the four plans presented to the Apportionment Board last year, three failed the federal Voting Rights Act. 

"It is not a test as to the number of the splits -- there is nothing in the Constitution about that," Braden said. 

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor noted that the Constitution requires an attempt to keep counties whole, if they are within a certain population range. 

"When you start with the premise that counties are to remain whole if at all possible, and you see a plan that will split 50 counties, and you see a plan that will do only 30, how are we to then say splitting 50 counties is constitutional when the argument is we couldn't do it any other way?" she asked. "We have to violate the Constitution so we're going to do it 50 times instead of 30 times?" 

Braden said many counties have to be divided because of population. 

"This is a complex process, and this court should seriously consider deferring to the (Apportionment Board's) interpretation of the Constitution unless it is provided to this court beyond a reasonable doubt evidence that this is invalid," he said. 

When the Supreme Court decides the case, it will not impact the November election. Justices ruled in February that the lines could stand this year. 

The court has six Republicans and one Democrat, Justice Yvette McGee Brown. Republican Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton recused herself and was replaced by Appeals Court Judge John Willamowski, a former GOP legislator.