COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A political stalemate over Ohio’s new legislative maps plunged the state into confusion Wednesday, even as members of a new map-drawing commission defended themselves against potential contempt charges they face for failing to meet the latest court order requiring them to stop gerrymandering.
The bipartisan Ohio Redistricting Commission planned to meet again Wednesday and Thursday. Its members — including Republican Gov. Mike DeWine — tried to deflect the threatened sanctions by telling the Ohio Supreme Court that they believe legal maps might be drawn by the end of the week. That’s despite all but admitting defeat last week after two failed attempts and declaring an impasse.
As the commission’s lawyer, Republican Attorney General Dave Yost asked justices to at least hold off to see if that happens before making their decision on whether the panel should be held in contempt of court for blowing a court-set deadline of Feb. 17.
Yost’s plea came a day after he urged top Republican legislative leaders, who also serve as redistricting commissioners, to act quickly to delay Ohio’s May 3 primary. He said in a letter that the panel’s inaction is raising “a thousand” never-before-faced legal questions for the state.
Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, the state’s chief election officer, told Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Bob Cupp in a separate letter that it is “impossible to see a scenario” in which conducting a complete primary on May 3 will be possible.
LaRose was compelled Tuesday to certify 2022 primary ballots with many candidate names omitted. Those included legislative and congressional candidates beholden to the as-yet-established maps, but also a host of those whose certifications are tied to the maps — including candidates for county offices, state school board seats, party positions and judgeships.
DeWine and LaRose join a third Republican statewide official, Auditor Keith Faber, on the fledgling Ohio Redistricting Commission. The officials hold potentially powerful swing votes on the committee, created when Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed measures in 2015 and 2018 to protect the state’s legislative and congressional maps from undue political favor.
Any two of the three could side with two minority Democrats to pass a map, even if the body’s three other Republicans objected. So far, however, Republicans have stuck together, passing two maps of Ohio House and Ohio Senate districts. Both have been declared unconstitutional by 4-3 majorities of the Ohio Supreme Court, where Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has cast the swing vote.
Ohio’s congressional map, passed by the state Legislature, was similarly invalidated. Redrawing that map also now falls to the commission.
DeWine used his own public statements to explain why the high court should not charge him with contempt, arguing that he has urged the panel to pass constitutional maps — and had no other power available to him.
He said it’s “undisputed” that he used “his leadership and office” throughout the redistricting process to secure maps that could pass constitutional scrutiny, but told justices that, ultimately, he “is but one of seven independent members of a separate constitutional body.”
“He lacks the legal power or capacity to dictate or compel a specific action, let alone result,” his lawyers wrote.
DeWine’s son, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Pat DeWine, says he will recuse himself if contempt proceedings are begun against his father.
In their joint filings, LaRose and Faber and, separately, Huffman and Cupp, made similar arguments to DeWine’s, contending that they cannot be held personally liable for the inability of the redistricting body as a whole to pass constitutional maps.
“While it is regretful that the Commission itself was unable to ‘ascertain and determine’ a new general assembly district plan,” Huffman and Cupp argued, “it certainly was not for lack of trying.”