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Commentary: O'Connor is not to blame for Ohio's map-making mess. Republicans are

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ohio Channel
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, a Republican, has sided with Democrats on the constitutionality of the Ohio Redistricting Commission's maps, making her a target for some in her own party.

Maybe the third time will be a charm for the Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

Maybe, but don't count on it.

Those five Republicans on the commission — and most of their allies in the Ohio General Assembly — seem hell-bent on ignoring Ohio's constitution.

They seem determined to brush aside a 4-3 Ohio Supreme Court decision, which, on Monday, ruled for a second time that the state legislative maps submitted by the five Republicans are unconstitutional.

The majority of the court — three Democrats and Republican Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor — gave the commission until Feb. 17 to come up with a third set of maps that will meet the requirements of the constitutional amendment passed in 2015 by 71% of Ohio voters re-writing the way in which state legislative and congressional districts are drawn.

Twice this commission has failed to meet the standard of making maps that would reflect the voting of Ohioans over the past decade — 54% Republican and 46% Democratic.

Instead they have made a hash of it and tried to throw the blame on one of the four Republicans on the court, Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, who voted with the court's three Democrats. What Ohio Republican leaders can't seem to get through their heads is that O'Connor, after a long and distinguished career that included a stint as lieutenant governor, can't run for re-election this year because of Ohio's age limit law for judges, and can thumb her nose at the threats and vitriol tossed her way by her fellow Republicans.

Bob Paduchik, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, has accused O'Connor of "being responsible for this mess."

Actually, if you are looking for the responsible parties you need look no further than the commission's five Republicans — Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, State Auditor Keith Faber, Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp and Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman.

 Clockwise from top left: Bob Cupp, Matt Huffman, Mike DeWine, Frank LaRose and Keith Faber.
DeWine, Jason Whitman
All others AP
Clockwise from top left: Bob Cupp, Matt Huffman, Mike DeWine, Frank LaRose and Keith Faber.

Last month, right after the first ruling on the state legislative maps, the same Ohio Supreme Court majority ruled that the congressional district map passed by the majority Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly was unconstitutional and gave them 30 days to clean up the mess.

Now, it looks like the legislature won't be able to do that and will punt the problem to the Ohio Redistricting Commission, which, as we know, does not have a very sterling record when it comes to making legal maps.

And the Republicans in the Statehouse are so out of touch with reality that they believe the Ohio Supreme Court created the mess.

"When was the last time these people heard the word no?" said David Niven, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. "They've done whatever they want for all of these years and they are reeling in shock when someone tells them, 'No, you can't do that.' "

The five Republicans on the redistricting commission want you to believe it is impossible to draw maps that conform to the 54-46 partisan split in the Ohio vote over the past decade.

It’s just not true.

Fair Districts Ohio, the coalition of voting rights groups that challenged the GOP maps before the Ohio Supreme Court, handed them a perfectly good congressional district map that would pass constitutional muster.

But, no, that would be too easy. It is in the best interests of the Republicans to make this appear to be a task as complex as that of that cryptologists breaking the enemy codes during World War II.

It's not.

You could give any reasonably bright junior high school kid the software and the census tracts and he or she could produce an entirely equitable and constitutional legislative district map in a matter of minutes — not days, or weeks, or months, but in minutes.

It's not that hard.

Another thing the Republicans are whining about is the looming May 3 primary election in Ohio, and how a delay in approving state legislative and congressional maps will make a dog's breakfast out of the work of putting on a statewide election. And, of course, they blame the Ohio Supreme Court for this.

Yes, it is true — there is much concern among the state legislative candidates and the people who run their campaigns over what the districts will ultimately look like. And there is worry among the people who run the state's 88 county boards of elections about whether they can be ready for a primary election that is scheduled for May 3.

The decision by the Ohio Supreme Court majority on Monday acknowledges that. But it also points out one basic truth: the Ohio legislature has the power to change the date of the primary. Push it back if need be.

Instead, though, it seems the Republican majority in the legislature has taken the You’re-not-the-boss-of-me attitude of a six-year-old and refuses to consider that. They'd much rather stew and fuss and blame everyone but themselves.

But the fact is that none of this would be happening if the five Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission had simply followed the law to begin with.

Another mind-blowing piece of illogic was contained in the dissent to Monday's opinion, written by two Republican justices, Sharon Kennedy and Pat DeWine. Yes, DeWine as in son-of-the-governor who refused to recuse himself from the case, even though his dad is a member of the commission.

Kennedy and DeWine argued that the Ohio Supreme Court doesn't have the authority to oversee the redistricting process.

"It is apparent that in disregard of constitutional standards, four members of this court have now commandeered the redistricting process and that they will continue to reject any General Assembly district plan until they get the plan they want," the two Republican justices wrote.

Well, yes. Yes, they will.

And the constitutional amendment passed by 71% of the voters in 2015 gives them the authority.

Here's what Section 9 (A) of the constitutional amendment has to say on the subject:

"The supreme court of Ohio shall have exclusive, original jurisdiction in all cases arising under this article."

And then Section 9 goes on to describe exactly the process that is going on right now.  

We can only hope that, this time around, the Republican-dominated commission and the legislature will take the warnings from the Ohio Supreme Court seriously.

But, given the history of this mess, they may just dig in their heels.

"I think what they will do is continue to demonize O'Connor," Niven said. "Their disdain for giving voters a fair say will shine through."

They can demonize her, but I don't think she will blink. Why would she? Her career as a political figure is about to end.

They could, if they have completely lost their minds, follow through on the rumblings coming out of the Statehouse that they could impeach her and remove her from office. For what, though? Following the will of 71% of Ohio voters and the letter of the law?

After Monday's decision, the ultra-conservative Ohio Christian Alliance, which represents a lot of evangelical GOP voters, put out a statement suggesting just that.

"It's time to move on and ignore the court," the Ohio Christian Alliance said. "If Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor wants to continue in her rogue manner, as she obviously has joined the radical left by trying to disrupt the 2022 mid-terms, she may be facing impeachment. Stay tuned."

If the Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly choose that extreme and ugly route, we will know for certain who has gone rogue. And it's not Maureen O'Connor.

Copyright 2022 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.