Chief justice in Ohio map flap: Court attacks harm democracy


By Julie Carr Smyth - Associated Press



COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor isn’t rattled on a personal level by the political attacks she endured from fellow Republicans during Ohio’s protracted redistricting fight. She’s confident she “did the right thing” in ruling their proposed political maps unconstitutional.

What does concern the retiring jurist is the ignorance and lack of respect for foundational government principles that she believes their actions demonstrated.

O’Connor drew GOP wrath for joining three Democrats on the seven-member Ohio Supreme Court to repeatedly invalidate the state’s new, Republican-drawn legislative and congressional maps. The maps remain in limbo as O’Connor exits the court Dec. 31 because of age limits.

“The people that voiced a need to remove me from office through impeachment really don’t have a grasp on our Constitution, or democracy, or checks and balances,” O’Connor, 71, told The Associated Press in a year-end interview last week. “And, unfortunately, they are in the Legislature.”

O’Connor — a former common pleas judge, county prosecutor, lieutenant governor and public safety director — said that she received overwhelming support from the public while the court fight raged, so “it certainly didn’t take courage for me to withstand the slings and arrows of the Legislature.”

“My advice to them was, please review the Constitution and maybe go back to, what is it, fourth or fifth grade, and learn about our institutions,” she said. “And maybe, just maybe, review what it was like in Germany when Hitler intimidated the judiciary and passed those laws that allowed for the treatment of the Jewish population.”

O’Connor said, “This country cannot stand if the judiciary is intimidated.” That’s what she believes lawmakers were attempting to do when they repeatedly defied court orders related to the maps, missed deadlines and threatened to impeach her.

The court ultimately decided not to hold the Legislature or members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission in contempt, O’Connor said, because it could have created a constitutional crisis.

“I did not want to create that on my watch,” she said. “I don’t think it was necessary.”

O’Connor dismissed suggestions that her gender played into the virulence of the pushback against her. That has included a fight over the placement of her official court portrait and the removal of her image from the photo gallery at Ohio Republican Party headquarters.

“No, because I think they think that if you’re a registered Republican, that’s going to affect everything you do in your job,” she said.

The few critics who contacted her felt the same way, she said.

“They said, ‘Ohio is a red state, why are you trying to turn it blue?’ These were the type of things that people were saying,” she said. “It’s like, OK, I’m a judge. I’m not trying to turn it blue or red or purple or pink. That’s not my role.”

O’Connor, the longest-serving woman in statewide elected office in Ohio, has been a consistent voice at the state and national levels against the politicization of the judiciary. In retirement, she has pledged to champion a constitutional amendment that fixes Ohio’s redistricting process, which was put in place in separate, widely supported ballot initiatives in 2015 and 2018.

She said that it’s too soon to say exactly what the proposal or the campaign for its passage will look like, “but it’s not going to be a one-woman band, let’s put it that way. There are a lot of people interested in doing this right.”

O’Connor didn’t mince words when asked about an 11th-hour effort to increase the threshold for passing constitutional amendments from a simple majority to a 60% supermajority. The idea was championed by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Rep. Brian Stewart, both Republicans.

“It’s a pretty transparent attempt to thwart a constitutional amendment,” O’Connor said.

LaRose has said the new threshold would assure changes to Ohio’s founding document that have strong bipartisan support. A resolution that would have put the question to voters died in the House last week for lack of votes. Legislative leaders said they may try again in January.

At the end of the day, O’Connor said that she’s “not traumatized” by being forced to leave office because of her age.

“I always joke that there’s that scene in ‘Braveheart’ where they’re running down the field and Mel Gibson’s yelling, ‘Freedom!’ You know? I get it. I understand what he was talking about,” she said.

By Julie Carr Smyth

Associated Press