Federal judges in Ohio won’t delay May 3 primary — for now

Ohio Supreme Court could hold Ohio Redistricting Commission in contempt.

A federal court panel on Wednesday decided not to delay Ohio’s May 3 primary — for now.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio reserved the right to intervene — perhaps by moving the primary to Aug. 2 — if the state doesn’t resolve its redistricting chaos by April 20. Legislative and congressional maps that were supposed to be finalized last year are still tied up in the Ohio Supreme Court.

During an hours-long hearing Wednesday, judges asked top Ohio elections officials for help determining whether to delay the primary and floated numerous alternatives to a May 3 primary — from using the state’s 2010 map to imposing an third map that’s been found unconstitutional to having a special master draw brand-new maps

The Ohio Redistricting Commission members also again have been threatened with contempt of court charges.

The primary is in limbo after the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that maps drawn by the Republican-dominated Ohio Redistricting Commission were unconstitutional. Democrats responded by seeking to delay the primary to give time to rewrite maps in a way that could be used this year, when control of Congress hinges on just a few seats.

Republicans in the legislature have insisted on maintaining the May 3 date, even though that means a delayed contest for Ohio General Assembly districts whose lines are still undetermined. A group of GOP voters has asked a federal court to order one of the unconstitutional maps to be used for those contests, setting up a hearing Wednesday with the broader debate about the primary as a whole.

Also on Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court gave the redistricting commission members until Monday to explain why they should not be held in contempt for earlier this week violating the court’s order to draw new, fair Ohio General Assembly district maps.

On Monday night, hours before the court-imposed midnight deadline to pass a fourth set of Statehouse districts, Republican members of the commission chose not to go with maps drawn in public by two independent consultants. Instead, Republicans tweaked versions of their own third set of maps (which were previously ruled unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court) and passed their maps Monday night in a 4-3 vote.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, ruled Wednesday morning that the commission has until 9 a.m. Monday to to show cause for why they should not be held in contempt of the court’s March 16 order.

ExploreRedistricting chaos: What’s happening, why it matters and what it means

The plaintiffs in the case are the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and the Ohio League of Women Voters, who have asked the commission to be held in contempt.

The Ohio Supreme Court has three times ruled the Ohio General Assembly district maps passed by the commission violated the Ohio Constitution because they did not reflect the state’s voters and unfairly favored Republicans. The court directed the commission to hire independent consultants and create maps from scratch, which they did. But the Republican majority on the commission bypassed those maps in favor of tweaking the last set of maps the court threw out.

Republicans said the mapmakers did not produce maps in time for the commission to review, amend and pass before the deadline.

Federal court proceedings

By Wednesday, the sense of frustration surrounding the federal court proceedings was palpable. At one point, the panel of U.S. District Court judges pleaded with Ohio’s top elections officials to take a position on whether the primary should go forward as planned.

“We’re used to people coming to this court of redress to tell us what they want,” U.S. District Court Chief Judge Algenon Marbley told Jonathan Blanton, the lawyer for GOP Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

The hearing broke to allow Blanton to call LaRose for advice on how to proceed. He returned to say that LaRose’s preference would be for a single primary on May 24 using the third set of maps, which has already been declared unconstitutional. But that did little to resolve the issue as the federal judges questioned whether they had the power to consolidate the primary.

With many states having already completed the once-a-decade redistricting process, Ohio is one of the final puzzle pieces in determining the congressional maps that will be used in this year’s midterms. That has added to a sense of urgency in both parties to try to squeeze an advantage out of the mapmaking.

But in the meantime, the proceedings have essentially left Ohio’s primary in a state of suspended animation, with voters and candidates alike unclear of what day the election will be held. There’s not much time left for a smooth resolution as early voting is supposed to begin on April 5.

At issue before the panel of U.S. District Court judges was whether to grant a request by a group of Republican voters to uphold the third set of maps approved by the Ohio Redistricting Commission. Complicating matters is the introduction of a fourth set of maps, which was challenged Tuesday as an unconstitutional gerrymander in the Ohio Supreme Court.

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