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Ohio Supreme Court rejects GOP-drawn congressional map as unfairly partisan

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The Ohio Supreme Court on Friday rejected a new congressional map drawn by state Republican lawmakers as unconstitutional and ordered it redrawn, marking a major victory for Democrats in a state where lopsided districts have confounded their efforts to gain seats in the House.

Democrats and voting rights groups had sued after Republicans created a map in November in which the party would have been favored to win 12 out of 15 seats, according to the court's 4-to-3 opinion. They charged that the new lines defied a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2018 to ban partisan gerrymandering.

"When the dealer stacks the deck in advance, the house usually wins," Justice Michael Donnelly wrote in the decision. "That perhaps explains how a party that generally musters no more than 55 percent of the statewide popular vote is positioned to reliably win anywhere from 75 percent to 80 percent of the seats in the Ohio congressional delegation. By any rational measure, that skewed result just does not add up."

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The Ohio court ordered the state legislature to submit a new map in the next 3o days. If it cannot, then the Ohio Redistricting Commission has another 30 days to try.

The commission is a separate seven-member board that includes three statewide officials — the governor, auditor and secretary of state, currently all Republicans — as well as two Republican state lawmakers and two Democratic ones. Last year, the legislature was unable to draw a map and punted it to the commission, which also failed and sent it back to the legislature, which then produced the now-rejected drawing.

The deadline for candidates to file to run in this year's May 3 primary is March 4.

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The decision came two days after the court also struck down new state legislative maps as unconstitutional and ordered them redrawn.

The ruling Friday on the congressional district map created the possibility of several new Democratic-leaning seats in the state, a significant political win given the party's narrow House majority at the beginning of what is expected to be a challenging election year for Democrats. Republicans, who control redistricting in growing southern states, have drawn favorable maps for their party, eliminating competitive seats and carving up minority communities that tend to vote Democratic.

National Democrats were roiled by their redistricting losses in 2011, caught unprepared to fight back against an organized Republican effort to draw maps that would secure their power for years. In preparation for this redistricting, Democrats spent the last several years shoring up a legal strategy that would allow them to immediately react when Republican maps were passed.

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"Let's be clear: Ohio Republicans purposefully drew gerrymandered maps in spite of redistricting reforms — and they did so because they thought they could get away with it," said former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, who founded a Democratic redistricting advocacy group. "But they underestimated our preparedness and our tenacity."

The Ohio ruling is the Democrats' first major victory. They have filed lawsuits all over the country, most notably in Texas and North Carolina, two states where minority population growth accounted for those states gaining more seats in Congress, but map drawers weakened the voting power of non-Whites. On Tuesday, a trial court in North Carolina shot down a legal challenge to that state's new maps, but voting rights groups intend to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Republican groups have also sued in states such as Illinois and Maryland, where they say Democrats have unfairly gerrymandered.

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The map struck down by the court was Ohio Republican lawmakers' second consecutive effort to blunt Democrats. After redistricting in 2011, the state's congressional delegation went from 10 Democrats and eight Republicans when Barack Obama won the state in 2008 to 12 Republicans and four Democrats when Obama won it again in 2012. Not a single seat flipped since.

Hamilton County, which contains the heavily Black city of Cincinnati, was sliced in half in 2011, and those minority voters lumped into districts with more rural, majority-White voters. For the past decade, the county, which voted for President Biden, was represented by two conservative Republicans.

Although the constitutional amendment called for counties to be kept whole, GOP lawmakers again chopped up Hamilton County last year, this time into three pieces.

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"The enacted plan splits Hamilton County into three districts for no apparent reason other than to confer an undue partisan advantage on the Republican Party," Donnelly wrote.

The Democrats' legal victory was the result of a concerted grass-roots political effort over the last several years to elect Democratic judges to the state Supreme Court ahead of this year's redistricting.

David Pepper, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party who helped lead the effort against the Republican-drawn maps, said of Friday's decision: "The people of Ohio are sick of the politicians rigging elections, so in a few years, they changed both their Constitution and the Ohio Supreme Court itself so it would be balanced. The rigged legislature ignored all that, broke the law, and today got their comeuppance. It's a huge win for democracy, the rule of law, and the voters of Ohio."

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who signed off on the legislative and congressional maps, had no immediate comment on the court's action. His son, Patrick DeWine, is a judge on the state Supreme Court and refused to recuse himself from the case. Patrick DeWine was one of the three judges who voted in support of the GOP maps.

In their dissent, they accused the majority of judicial overreach and sided with Republican lawmakers who said they drew competitive districts. They wrote that competition was a better standard than districts proportional to the partisan breakdown of the state.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, a Republican who voted with the Democratic judges, wrote in a concurring opinion that while the amendment did not ask for proportionality, the GOP map "goes too far in the other direction to suggest that in considering whether a plan is unduly partisan, the Supreme Court should simply ignore a gross departure from proportionality."

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A spokeswoman for the Ohio Republican Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the court's action on House lines. But party chairman Bob Paduchik released a brief statement earlier, when the court struck down the legislative maps, that focused only on attacking O'Connor and not on the substance of the decision.

"She is responsible for this mess," he said.

The new map was set to be in effect for only four years, because fewer than one-third of legislative Democrats approved it. The amendment required that level of support for a 10-year map, which was supposed to be an incentive to collaborate on fair lines.

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