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'Just too far': Ohio mapmakers spar over contempt threat

The bipartisan commission has sent five different plans for state legislative districts to the high court, four of which have been struck down.
Credit: WBNS-10TV / Chris Poturalski
File photo - The Ohio Statehouse

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Partisan mapmakers in Ohio made distinctly emotional pleas to the Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday, as justices once again weigh whether to hold the state's redistricting commission in contempt.

The bipartisan commission has sent five different plans for state legislative districts to the high court. Four were invalidated and, on the fifth time around, the commission opted to send over a previously invalidated map.

The endless fight, which long-suffering county election officials have likened to “Groundhog Day,” prevented primaries for the Ohio House and Ohio Senate from moving forward May 3.

Republican commissioners have stalwartly defended their actions as making the best of time constraints and a cumbersome, sometimes conflicting set of court decisions and criteria for carrying out Ohio's new political map-drawing system.

On Thursday, they took particular aim at persistent requests by Democratic and voting-rights groups who went them held in contempt of court.

“This all is just too far beyond what this Court can and should do,” wrote lawyers for Ohio Auditor Keith Faber, the sole Republican to vote against any of the commission's legislative plans. “These show-cause motions unnecessarily pull the Court away from what the Constitution actually requires it to do: review the merits of a Commission-passed General Assembly-district plan.”

Attorneys for the commission's two Democrats begged to differ, expressing not just disappointment but “sadness” at Republicans' unwillingness to involve the minority party in the Statehouse mapmaking process and, for the first time, recommending contempt.

“Contempt is a drastic remedy, especially against members of a constitutional body,” state Sen. Vernon Sykes and House Minority Leader Allison Russo's filing read. “But the Republican Commissioners have so clearly violated their obligations, so clearly indicated they have no intention of complying with the Court’s orders, that Senator Sykes and Leader Russo see no other reasonable choice.”

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, both the state's elections chief and a member of the redistricting commission, insists that a single date — April 20 — should be key in determining whether the redistricting panel was in contempt. That is the date on which any new state legislative map needed to be finalized in time for 2022 primary and general elections.

Importantly, the third round of maps was the only one ready to go on that date and has now been programmed into voter registration and tabulation systems by county election boards, said LaRose spokesman Rob Nichols.

“No one disagreed with any of these statements at the federal court hearing, and the court noted as much in its ruling on April 20," he said.

Democrats asserted in Thursday's filings — which, notably, came in separate litigation and in a different court — that “that's nonsense.”

“First, even assuming April 20 was the drop-dead date to implement a new map for an August 2 primary election, the Commission could have passed a new, constitutional map by April 20,” they wrote. “Second, this ‘time crunch’ and supposed lack of other options is a problem of the Republican Commissioners’ own making, and ‘inability that excuses compliance cannot be self-imposed.’”

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