COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Republican Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court is at the center of the ongoing reassignment process given her potential status as a key vote on a court that will handle all legal disputes on the cards.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has argued against partisan gerrymanderings multiple times, with her dissenting vote in a 2012 Ohio Supreme Court ruling in which other Republican justices upheld the state’s current lines of law and ruled against a Democratic lawsuit. In addition to her particular track record, she is considered politically independent and has recently come into increasing conflict with the Republican leadership in Ohio to defend herself against what she believes is an increasing politicization of the judiciary. She’s also fixed-term and forced to step down in late 2022 due to the mandatory retirement age for judges, while the three other Republican justices – Pat DeWine, Pat Fischer, and Sharon Kennedy – all run in next year’s election. and were approved by the Ohio Republican Party last Friday.
As a result, political observer O’Connor intervenes as a possible X-factor in all challenges to cards of the Republican-dominated Ohio Redistricting Commission, given the current division of the court of four Republicans and three Democrats. The commission, which last week officially unveiled a card that would likely allow Republicans to maintain their veto-proof super-majority in the state legislature, was created as part of two electoral reforms aimed at combating gerrymandering.
The commission has until September 15 to approve new maps of the legislative district before focusing on the production of congressional maps.
In an interview, Paul Pfeifer, a Republican and former Ohio Supreme Court Justice who authored one of the dissent that O’Connor signed in the 2012 redistribution ruling, said it was easy to imagine O’Connor making a crucial one Vote on the new legislative or congress cards.
He said he expected her to provide her interpretation of what she believed the Constitution required under the new rules.
“If they hit the mark with that, they are good. If not, they won’t, ”said Pfeifer. “And I think you know that. I think Republicans know they won’t count on Maureen O’Connor’s loyalty to the party. “
Republicans involved in the redistribution process are well aware of O’Connor’s track record on redistribution issues, said people familiar with the process, as well as their recent past voting with Democrats on a number of key issues, such as one June ruling banning schools from arming teachers with no prior law enforcement training or experience. Nobody wanted to comment on this story, in part because of the likelihood that the issue will land in court.
The Democrats, meanwhile, hope that O’Connor will act as a backbone against any overt partisan gerrymandering.
“I hope it won’t run out when the cards are monstrous,” said David Pepper, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “But let’s suppose it falls where you have three and three. Then O’Connor is the ultimate judiciary, and their previous opinion is pretty telling. “
O’Connor declined to comment on this story through a court spokesman. But she brought up the 2012 redistribution decision during a January interview with the editorial staff of cleveland.com / Plain Dealer.
In that interview, O’Connor, a former Summit County attorney and lieutenant governor under former Republican Governor Bob Taft, said she had received criticism for ruling against Republicans against the state’s current lines of law in 2012.
“I heard from Republicans after that [who said] I didn’t vote like a Republican, ”she said.
“I’ve gotten out of shape in some people’s minds,” she said. “And here, too, party affiliation should have nothing to do with how a judge does his job – and people have to understand that.
Under Ohio’s new system of recasting the state lines of law, approved by voters in 2015, the Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over lawsuits alleging that new cards violate the rules, the restrictions on the division of counties and cities include. The rules also instruct the commission to design districts that will allocate parliamentary seats in proportion to voter preferences in the most recent election results.
The rules prohibit all courts from actually drawing districts, which has sometimes happened in states where courts discard cards as illegal. But the Supreme Court can direct the Ohio Redistricting Commission to fix violations. If there are too many violations, the court can order the Redistribution Commission to completely redraw the cards.
If Republicans on the Reallocation Commission pass a card without the panel’s two Democrats, the Constitution explicitly sets out criteria by which the Supreme Court can reject cards that are inconsistent with Ohio’s voting results. As part of this process, majority Republicans on the commission are required to issue a written statement arguing that their cards are politically proportionate.
There are similar rules for redrawing Ohio’s congressional districts under another constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018, although that process does not specifically prevent courts from drawing maps. The first deadline in this process falls on September 30th, with responsibility for drawing lines between the legislature and the Redistribution Commission.
The prospect of redistribution and the court’s role in resolving legal challenges were a major issue in the 2020 Ohio Supreme Court elections, though overshadowed by the presidential race. The Democrats eventually got one of two seats to vote, with Jennifer Brunner, a former foreign secretary, elected, displacing Republican judge Judith French.
With Brunner’s victory, the Democrats had won three of the last four seats on the High Court since 2018. That kept them in the minority, but it also highlighted O’Connor as a possible swing voice on redistribution and other issues.
In 2012, O’Connor disagreed in a 4-3 split decision in which the Republican-dominated court upheld the state’s current legislative plans and ruled against a lawsuit by the Statehouse Democrats. In the majority opinion, four Republican judges said the court should give the Distribution Committee, the body of elected officials responsible for reassignment at the time, a wide margin of discretion, saying any lawsuits contesting the cards were high Threshold would have to meet the “beyond” a reasonable doubt “that they have violated the rules.
The majority of the courts included then-Judge Bob Cupp, a Republican who is now Speaker of the Ohio House, and one of the seven members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission.
But O’Connor signed two dissenting opinions, one from Pfeifer, the former Republican Justice, and another from Judge Yvette McGee Brown, who was the only Democrat on the court at the time.
In Pfeifer’s opinion, by setting such a high legal threshold for challenging cards, majority ruling would “turn this court into a stamp, not the guardian of the constitution it is intended to be.” He said the cards should be thrown away and redrawn, which O’Connor agreed to by signing the dissenting opinion.
And in their opinion, Brown agreed to the majority’s “outside of reasonable doubt” legal standard, but said the card breached even that high standard by illegally and unnecessarily splitting multiple counties.
The two opinions had different views on whether the Ohio Constitution wanted to prevent partisan manners and whether the judges should consider this as a factor. Pfeifer wrote that politics was an inescapable part of the process, with rules for splitting and drawing lines that should set boundaries for officials. Brown wrote that when the document was drafted in 1851, the state’s Constitution provided for a redistribution process that sought to prevent gerrymandering by placing responsibility in the hands of a body of elected officials rather than direct state lawmakers.
“In practice, however, any political party that has a majority of the distribution committee members uses the division to advance its partisan interests. Today’s decision by the majority ensures that this continues, ”said Brown in her contradiction, which O’Connor signed.
Aside from their disagreements in 2012 on the redistribution case, O’Connor has also grappled with the leadership of the Republican Party in general in recent years.
In September 2020, during the presidential campaign, she took the unusual step of publicly beating the Ohio Republican Party for criticizing a Democratic judge in Franklin County who had ruled on a polling lawsuit against Republicans. Ohio Republican Party officials eventually apologized, as did lawyers in the case.
O’Connor cited media coverage of her 2020 statement against the Republican Party of Ohio during her speech to the federal court earlier this month, saying it had received “global attention” for the Ohio GOP’s admonition.
“We are the southpaws. This is our mission. We are our own branch. A wall of neutrality should separate us from day-to-day politics, ”she said during the address.
O’Connor also opposed Republicans over a recent Republican-backed law change that for the first time lists partisan affiliations for state justice candidates, including Ohio Supreme Court justices, starting in the 2022 election. The change comes after Democrats won three seats in the Ohio Supreme Court in elections that were otherwise dominated by Republicans.
Before the change in the law, judges ran for partisan primary elections, but then appeared on the November ballot without a party label. After the change in law, the old rules will continue to apply to local judges, but the November polls will list party affiliations for state appellate judges and Supreme Court justices, including the office of chief judge.
O’Connor had argued for years that Ohio judges should stop running in partisan primary and make them completely impartial positions. But Republican supporters of the law change went the other way, saying that listing partisan affiliations in November would increase electoral transparency by giving voters a better idea of the candidates’ legal philosophy.