SUDDES: Lessons to learn from Ohio’s mapping mess

Here’s the gist, and a couple lessons, from Wednesday’s federal court ruling on Ohio’s legislative mapping mess:

If the Redistricting Commission (in effect, GOP Senate President Matt Huffman, GOP House Speaker Robert Cupp) keeps doing what it does best – nothing – Ohioans will be forced to elect General Assembly members from Republican-proposed districts Ohio’s Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional.

Then Ohio would be forced to go through the same apportionment falderal in 2024, because the default legislative districts that took effect on May 28 would only be good for 2022′s election. That is, this year’s mapping mess would be repeated in 2024.

Here are some lessons. First, the constitutional amendment that created the Redistricting Commission needs a total rewrite, and good-government groups better get moving on that today, not tomorrow.

Second, for whatever reason, Huffman and Cupp have treated the other three Republicans on the commission – Gov. Mike DeWine, State Auditor Keith Faber, Secretary of State Frank LaRose – as lumps of Silly Putty and gotten away with it.

Third, if, as seems likely, there’ll be another reapportionment circus in 2024, Ohio Democrats might realize – finally – that electing a Democrat as state auditor and a Democrat as secretary of state can be just as important as marquee jobs such as governor and U.S. senator.

Consider the math. The Redistricting Commission has seven members – five Republicans (Huffman, Cupp, DeWine, Faber and LaRose) and two Democrats (state Sen. Vernon Sykes of Akron, House Minority Leader Allison Russo). That makes the commission 5-2 Republican.

Leaving aside this year’s gubernatorial contest, what if Democrats managed to elect a state auditor and secretary of state in November, making the commission 4-3 Democratic.

Trouble is, the last time Democrats elected a state auditor was in 1990 (Thomas E. Ferguson). The last time Democrats elected a secretary of state was in 2006 (now-Justice Jennifer Brunner of the state Supreme Court.)

For the record, this year’s Democratic candidate for state auditor is Taylor Sappington, of Nelsonville, in Athens County. This year’s Democratic candidate for secretary of state is City Council member Chelsea Clark, of suburban Cincinnati’s Forest Park.

The three-judge panel that made Wednesday’s ruling was in theory 2-1 Republican – if you label a judge by his appointing president’s party.

Of the trio’s members, Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley, of Southern Ohio, was a Bill Clinton appointee. Sixth Circuit Judge Amul Thapar was appointed first a District judge by George W. Bush, then a Circuit judge by Donald Trump, who also appointed District Judge Benjamin Beaton, of Western Kentucky, the panel’s third member. Thapar and Beaton joined in Wednesday’s opinion, while Marbley dissented. Marbley predicted, probably accurately, that the Redistricting Commission will play possum until its (gerrymandered) Plan No. 3 takes effect by default on May 28 for this year’s election.

In 2018, reviewing a book by a celebrated 7th Circuit judge, Richard A. Posner, Thapar and Beaton said this in a footnote about intervention by federal courts in state government disputes: “Treating the Constitution as a legal Swiss Army knife relieves the healthy pressure on the people to address … constitutional lacunas” – a $5 word for something missing – “through legislative compromise.”

That is, legislators should do what they’re elected to do. But the Redistricting Commission – constitutionally, an extension of the legislature – hasn’t and almost certainly won’t. Still, Judges Thapar and Beaton are optimistic about a potential Redistricting Commission compromise. “We must presume,” they said in a footnote, “that Ohio’s officials are public servants who still view partisan advantage as subordinate to the rule of law.”

With respect, gentlemen, a reader must presume that you don’t know Ohio.

Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University and the former Statehouse reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

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