Local Politics: The Ohio GOP gerrymander attempt nears an end game

With an Ohio Supreme Court deadline looming and a federal lawsuit in process, the state’s Republican-led, voter-ignoring redistricting process could go a handful of ways

Craig Calcaterra
Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, is one of the seven members of Ohio's Redistricting Commission who failed to draw another set of legislative maps by the court's deadline.

A little over two weeks ago, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the Ohio Redistricting Commission to come up with a new legislative map by the close of business on February 17. This was the third bite at the apple for the Commission, after the court invalidated two earlier maps for their failure to set forth fair and proportional districts in compliance with Ohio law.

Despite the fact that there are computer programs that could, in a matter of seconds, spit out maps to basically any specification — including those that set forth fair and proportional districts in compliance with Ohio law — the Commission missed the deadline. On Friday, in what has been described as "an extraordinary move," Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor demanded that Gov. DeWine and the other members of the Commission explain why they should not be held in contempt for failing to deliver a map. They have until noon on Wednesday to get their stories straight.

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The Republican Commission members' primary excuse for failing to meet the deadline, according to Senate President Matt Huffman, is that the court's order was impossible with which to comply. That's not wholly ridiculous if you take Huffman literally, but I think the court is looking for legal reasons no map has been submitted, not why it's philosophically and politically impossible for Republicans to agree to fairness when it comes to elections.

Huffman's secondary excuse — that two maps proposed by the Democratic members of the Commission were the products of gerrymandering and that would be simply unacceptable — is downright adorable. Sometimes at contempt hearings the party that gets hauled in to show cause gets placed under oath to explain themselves. I hope that happens here because I'd love to hear Huffman testify about when, exactly, he and his fellow Republicans became opposed to gerrymandering, because until about a week ago this Thursday it was their raison d'etre.

Of course, the actual reason the Republicans who control the Commission have failed to abide by the court's order is that they're stalling until help arrives. That call for help came on Friday morning, one night's sleep after the Commission failed to meet its deadline, in the form of a federal lawsuit by a group of Republican activists who are trying to get a panel of three federal judges to bypass the Ohio Supreme Court and impose the last map the Commission submitted, which was previously rejected as an illegal, pro-Republican gerrymander.

That lawsuit would have you believe that the petitioners are simple, humble citizens who require certainty as to what legislative districts will look like if they are going to engage in the practice of democracy this election season. The fact that the parties to it are the president of Ohio Right to Life and a former Republican state representative — and that the suit was filed by Donald C. Brey, a longtime go-to attorney for Republicans around Capitol Square — tells the real story, however.

The suit is an attempted end-run around the Ohio Supreme Court and the Commission's failure to submit a new map for consideration is a necessary condition for it to work, insofar as it would simply not do to have anything approaching a fair map floating around that a court might choose to end this standoff. To the contrary, it allows for the possibility that federal judges — four of the eight on the bench in the Southern District of Ohio are Trump appointees — will impose the last, egregious GOP gerrymander and end the messy business of ensuring fair elections. I have no idea if the federal court will entertain such a gambit, but I'm pretty certain that's the end game here.

If the federal court does not act before Wednesday, there's a very good chance that the Ohio Supreme Court will hold the Redistricting Commission in contempt. But while that would be appropriate given the contempt for which its Republican majority clearly has for the notion of fair districts, it's not likely to get us any closer to a resolution of this constitutional crisis. 

If you have any doubt about that, just wait a month. That's when we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Ohio Supreme Court holding that the state's school funding methods are unconstitutional and ordering our Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature to fix it. Which they simply refused to do, choosing instead to basically ignore the Supreme Court and keep doing what they have always done, at which point the Supreme Court backed down and let them.

Don't think for a moment that Gov. DeWine, Matt Huffman and the other members of the Commission aren’t aware of that history and aren’t banking on it as their worst-case scenario. A worst case that, nonetheless, leaves us with the sorts of gerrymandered districts they have been working hard to impose.