Supreme Court tells Ohio to wait before drawing new voting maps

The U.S. Supreme Court Friday handed Ohio Republicans an apparent victory by delaying a lower court order that state officials quickly draw up new congressional districts in time for next year’s elections.

In a brief one-paragraph decision, the justices chose to delay any ruling on Ohio until the high court next month hands down rulings in cases from Maryland and North Carolina on whether lawmakers in those states designed congressional districts that blatantly favored one party.

By doing so, the justices put on hold a decision earlier this month by a panel of three federal judges in Cincinnati who ruled that the congressional maps drawn up by Ohio Republicans in 2011 were unconstitutional.

Calling the map “partisan discrimination,” the federal judges ordered Ohio officials to devise new districts for the 16 congressional seats by June 14. Under the current map, the Republicans control 12 of the state’s 16 congressional seats even though Ohio is considered a relatively competitive two-party state.

Ohio Attorney General David Yost, who is a Republican, hailed the court’s order, saying “these very questions were already pending before the Supreme Court from other states,” adding that “common sense suggested waiting for those decisions due next month.”

By contrast, Democrats were dismayed. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, said she was “quite disappointed” by the order.

“After today’s action, Ohioans are left to hope the U.S. Supreme Court has a better plan than the one imposed on them by a cynical, power hungry Republican majority in Ohio’s State Capital,” Kaptur said.

At stake is the constitutionality of the practice called “gerrymandering,” which has been part of the way congressional districts have been drawn since the dawn of the Republic.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s order does not guarantee that Ohio Republicans will prevail on the merits of the 2011 map. That plan, backed by former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., and signed by former Gov. John Kasich, had been widely criticized as one of the most glaring examples of gerrymandering.

But early this month, a three-judge panel made up of federal appeals Judge Karen Nelson, and U.S. District Judges Timothy Black and Michael Watson invalidated the map.

The judges ordered Gov. Mike DeWine and the legislature to design their “own remedial plan” to change the districts no later than June 14 and curtly informed state officials “no continuances will be granted.”

The judges had warned that if the Ohio government “fails in its task to enact a remedial plan, we have our ‘own duty to cure illegally gerrymandered districts through an orderly process in advance of elections,’ ’’ such as naming a special master to design new districts.

No matter what the courts rule on Ohio’s districts, it likely would only impact next year’s elections.

Last year Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that would overhaul the state’s redistricting process after the 2020 census, requiring any new maps to have three-fifths support in the state House and Senate, including support from at least half the members of the minority party.

Under that measure, if Republicans and Democrats in the legislature cannot agree on a map, a seven-member bipartisan commission would be tasked with drawing new maps.

Those maps would require at least two votes from each party in order to pass. And if the commission can’t reach an agreement, the legislature could impose a map without minority party support, but that map would only be good for four years, rather than 10.

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