The Ohio Supreme Court invalidated a fourth legislative redistricting plan Thursday, saying the commission that drew the maps barely altered the previously rejected version and failed to comply with the state's new anti-gerrymandering rules.
In a 4-3 decision, the court ordered the Ohio Redistricting Commission to produce yet another map by May 6, three days after the state was initially supposed to hold its legislative primaries.
Election officials have said approved maps must be in place by Wednesday to hold a state legislative primary by the latest possible date — Aug. 2. But the justices argued that the timeline was "speculative" and said it wouldn't force their hand to approve new maps.
Ohio will still hold a May 3 primary for congressional and statewide races, which aren't affected by the redistricting debate over seats in the Legislature.
The back-and-forth is the latest setback in a protracted battle between Republicans who control the Redistricting Commission and the state's high court, which has positioned itself as determined to enforce the state’s redistricting reforms. The Supreme Court consists of four Republicans and three Democrats.
After the court rejected the third set of maps and threatened to hold the redistricting commission in contempt, the commission appeared to take a different tack in drawing up the legislative boundaries. It hired independent mapmakers — paying them nearly $100,000 — and brought in a mediator. The process was livestreamed, allowing the public to watch the maps being drawn in real time, and voting rights advocates were optimistic that the resulting maps would be fair and lawful.
But on the last day of remapping efforts, as the independent mapmakers struggled to meet a court-ordered deadline, the Republican majority on the commission proposed and quickly passed a set of maps a GOP staffer had worked up on the side.
“What began as a 'historic' process devolved into the same one-sided partisan map-drawing process that led us to invalidate the previous three plans,” the justices wrote in an unsigned majority opinion Thursday.
Justice Michael P. Donnelly, a Democrat, had even sharper words in a concurring opinion.
"Just when the independent map drawers were perilously close to showing that the difficult was achievable," he wrote, "the commission’s majority-party members summarily pulled the plug on that process."
The concurring justices chided members of the commission — particularly Republican Senate President Matt Huffman — for actions that they argued slowed and blocked the independent mapmakers from finishing their work.
Some Republican justices argued that the Supreme Court’s orders were an overreach.
“We are stuck in a time loop, like the characters in the movie Groundhog Day,” Justice Sharon Kennedy wrote in a dissenting opinion. “The majority’s continued denial of the limitation of this court’s power may end up costing the taxpayers millions of dollars.”
Jen Miller, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said she was hopeful the latest decision would prove effective in the end. The organization is one of the plaintiffs who have repeatedly challenged the commission’s maps.
"Bottom line, our priority is fair maps," Miller said. "All I can do is remain hopeful."
It is the first redistricting process since the state implemented a new commission process that consists of asking a bipartisan group of state officials to come up with legislative maps that are compact and not designed to boost one party over the other. Deeply rooted partisanship, however, has stymied the prospects for compromise sought by advocates.
The costs of the failed attempts are adding up: On top of the nearly $100,000 paid to mapmakers, taxpayers will now have to fund a second primary. Legislators opted not to move the state’s May 3 primary for statewide and congressional races, which means the state will need to host a second primary for the legislative races, costing taxpayers about $20 million, said House Minority Leader Allison Russo, a Democrat who is on the commission.