New U.S. House map stumbles again in wake of latest Supreme Court ruling

The Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling Monday to strike down maps of Ohio’s state House and Senate U.S. House districts seems to have sown confusion among state legislators still trying to assemble an acceptable map of new congressional districts — and thrown both processes back on the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

What’s happened: Every 10 years, the state must draw new legislative district based on new census data. The Ohio Redistricting Commission approved Ohio House and Senate maps in September, and the General Assembly approved a congressional map in November. But both were Republican proposals that garnered only Republican support and would only be in effect for four years, due to new map-drawing processes Ohio voters approved.

Progressive and voting-rights groups sued over both, alleging the maps were gerrymandered to unfairly favor Republicans, who already held strong majorities in the legislature and on the redistricting commission.

In a succession of three 4-3 rulings, the Supreme Court agreed: rejecting the state legislative maps Jan. 12, overturning the congressional map two days later, and now invalidating revised state House and Senate maps for the same reasons.

What’s going on now: Legislators were slated Tuesday to consider two bills on new congressional districts — a House committee was to hear House Bill 479 in the morning, while an afternoon Senate committee was to hear Senate Bill 286. A Republican map proposal was expected to be unveiled at those hearings, with the intent of pushing it through both House and Senate by the end of the week.

But both those meetings were cancelled. A hearing on SB 286 is scheduled for Wednesday morning, but that doesn’t leave time to get a map through both houses in regular session before the court-imposed deadline of Feb. 13.

If that happens the job of map-drawing — including reducing Ohio’s U.S. House districts from 16 to 15 — will revert to the Ohio Redistricting Commission. That would give state officials another 30 days to produce an acceptable map.

House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, said he would be unable to get the two-thirds House majority needed to declare a new congressional map as an emergency measure. Declaring an emergency would let the map go into effect immediately, instead of waiting 90 days after the governor’s signature; without an emergency declaration, the map wouldn’t be in place before the May 3 primary for U.S. House seats.

A map approved by the redistricting commission, however, could go into effect immediately.

Anticipating a return to the redistricting commission, Ohio Senate Democrats posted a revised congressional map proposal of their own on the commission’s website Tuesday.

But as of Monday, before the commission takes up the congressional map, it faces a Feb. 17 deadline to adopt new Ohio House and Senate maps as well. Following that, parties would have three business days to file any further objections.

What did the latest court ruling say: The court’s latest opinion affirmed Democratic objections that many “Democratic-leaning” districts were so by less than 2%, while no Republican-leaning districts were that close. That could easily produce a more Republican-dominated legislature than the map they overturned, the majority opinion said.

Justices also faulted Republicans for simply making minor adjustments to maps the court had already thrown out.

“We clearly invalidated the entire original plan in League of Women Voters of Ohio,” the opinion says, citing the case’s lead plaintiff. “The commission’s choice to nevertheless start with that plan and change it as little as possible is tantamount to an intent to preserve as much partisan favoritism as could be salvaged from the invalidated plan.”

Reaction to the latest news: State Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, co-chair of the redistricting commission, echoed the court’s sentiment in a statement Tuesday.

“Before we start drawing maps, it is important that every member of the Redistricting Commission publicly states that they intend to follow the Court order and draw fair maps that closely match statewide voter preferences and comply with the Ohio Constitution,” he said.

Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio — lead plaintiff in the case — said her group is ready to work with the redistricting commission on creating maps that adhere to the state constitution and uphold voting rights.

“Once again, we commend the Ohio Supreme Court for standing with voters and rejecting partisan gerrymandering,” she said in a news release. “For our representative democracy to work, Ohioans need districts that are fair and responsive to voters, rather than rigged for political interests.”

How will this affect the upcoming election: The filing deadline for congressional seats has been extended to March 4. The filing deadline for state House and Senate seats was Feb. 2 — even though those district boundaries are again uncertain.

“Ohio’s voters, candidates and election system now face a constitutional crisis and election system chaos,” said John Fortney, director of communications for the Ohio Senate Majority Caucus. “Candidates have no specific direction regarding the districts for their campaigns and voters face the uncertainty of additional court-ordered gerrymandering.”

The Ohio Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections, is reviewing the court’s ruling but has no immediate announcements to make on its impact, according to Rob Nichols, press secretary for Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

In their majority opinion, justices noted that the General Assembly could move the May 3 state House and Senate primary election date if needed.

Giulia Cambieri, communications director for Ohio Senate Democrats, said their caucus has not heard any rumblings from the Republican majority about moving the primary date.

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