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Analysis: Maureen O'Connor may be retiring from Ohio's high court, but not from tormenting the GOP

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O'Connor delivers her final state of the judiciary speech on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. O'Connor, a Republican, said Ohio's efforts to curb gerrymandering are not working and voters must once again amend the constitution to take politics completely out of the process.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O'Connor delivers her final state of the judiciary speech on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. O'Connor, a Republican, said Ohio's efforts to curb gerrymandering are not working and voters must once again amend the constitution to take politics completely out of the process.

So, what might make serious-minded, somewhat dour Republicans like Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman and Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp happy enough to climb up on their big oaken desks and do the Griddy?

Well, for one thing, the fact that one of their fellow Republicans, Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, is leaving the Ohio Supreme Court this year, a victim of an odd Ohio law that sets an age limit for Ohio judges.

Maybe, though, Huffman and Cupp might celebrate too soon.

O'Connor is a Republican who is not at all fond of the partisan gerrymandering that Huffman and Cupp are so devoted to.

 Speaker Bob Cupp and Ohio Senate Majority Leader Matt Huffman.
Speaker Bob Cupp and Ohio Senate Majority Leader Matt Huffman.

Last week, in her final "State of the Judiciary" speech delivered to the Ohio Judicial Conference, she made it clear that while she will no longer be on the Ohio Supreme Court, she will continue the fight for a new system of drawing legislative district lines that takes the power out of the hands of elected officials.

The redistricting reforms passed overwhelmingly by Ohio voters in 2015 and 2018 have clearly failed, the chief justice said. They need to be replaced by a new system that completely removes partisan politics form the process.

And that means another constitutional amendment.

“The legislature can of course vote to place the amendment on the ballot," O'Connor said. "What do you think the chances are?"

“Absent that, collecting hundreds of thousands of valid signatures will be necessary," she said. "It will take many interested groups coming together to secure the signatures for a constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot.

"This is one thing that I hope to be involved with after Dec. 31.”

Ruh-roh, Mr. Speaker. Ruh-roh, Mr. President.

That pesky O'Connor isn't going away completely.

Her words gave a much-needed boost to the leaders of Ohio's voter rights organizations, who have spent the past year fighting Ohio's GOP leadership in the state Supreme Court, challenging the Republican maps.

"I am incredibly pleased that she is going to use her retirement to fight for fair maps," said Catherine Turcer, the executive director of Common Cause Ohio, one of the leading voter rights groups.

Turcer knows the Republican Party establishment in Ohio will fight tooth-and-nail to keep control of redistricting.

"The Republicans in the Statehouse are drunk with power," Turcer said. "And what do you do with drunks? You take away their keys."

That, Turcer said, would be the goal of a new constitutional amendment — a system whether neither political party could singlehandedly control redistricting.

O'Connor, for her part, has been an omnipresent pain in the rear to the two guys from Lima who are the most powerful politicians in Ohio. Yes, far more powerful than the governor, who must regularly bow and scrape before the mighty Cupp and Huffman.

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O'Connor had the temerity to exercise her well-informed judgement to break with her fellow Republicans on the court and join with the three Democrats to find that every last one of the state legislative and congressional district maps that came before the court to be unconstitutional.

Unconstitutional, that is, under the two constitutional amendments setting out rules for drawing district lines passed overwhelmingly by Ohio voters in 2015 and again in 2018.

"The Republicans in the Statehouse are drunk with power. And what do you do with drunks? You take away their keys." Catherine Turcer

The Republican plan for end-running the Ohio Supreme Court is this:

  • Keepkicking the can down the road on court deadlines and possibly go to the U.S. Supreme Court to cut the state supreme court completely out of the process.
  • Roll the dice on Justice Sharon Kennedy, a Butler County Republican, defeating Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner for chief justice in November. Or, if Brunner wins, having Gov. Mike DeWine appoint a cooperative Republican to her seat as a justice.
  • And come back after the election with a friendly GOP majority on the Ohio Supreme Court that will obey the Lima Boys without question; and approve whatever cockeyed maps they submit, as long as the maps preserve the veto-proof Republican supermajority in the legislature.

A little complicated, but there is every chance the Ohio Republican Party could pull it off.
That, of course, would send the voter rights groups to the drawing board to come up with a ballot issue that would take elected officials — Republican and Democratic — completely out of the redistricting process, as states like Michigan and California have already done.

"We have to be thoughtful about going forward with this," Turcer said. "We have to make sure the groups involved have the resources to carry through a statewide petition initiative and a statewide campaign to get it passed."

The League of Women Voters of Ohio, the Ohio ACLU and the Ohio chapter of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute are all likely to be a part of the new reform movement, just as they did when challenging the GOP maps before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Turcer said the parties to a petition initiative would have to come together on the language of a constitutional amendment and pool their resources for a massive statewide signature campaign.

The reformers would be required to submit a total number of voter signatures equal to at least 10% of the vote in this November's gubernatorial election. Four years ago, that number was set at 442,958 — and it could jump some if this year's DeWine-Whaley contest breaks the 2018 record for most voters in an Ohio governor's race.

And those signatures would have to be gathered from at least 44 of Ohio's 88 counties.

A challenge, for sure. But doable, with the right resources.

In order to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot by the November 2023 off-year election, organizers would have to submit signatures by next July.

But don't expect them to do that.

"An odd-numbered year is hard," Turcer said. "We would need a big turnout election."

And there is no election in the foreseeable future that would have a bigger turnout than the one coming in November 2024. A presidential election. Nothing beats a presidential race for voter turnout.

Whatever constitutional amendment the voting rights groups come up with, its centerpiece will be putting the authority for drawing new legislative maps in the hands of an independent. And there will be a sign on the door, in big, bold letters: No Elected Officials Allowed. Stay Out.

That goes for Republicans, Democrats or any other party that might achieve ballot status in Ohio in the future.

Redistricting ballot issues failed three times in Ohio before the passage of the current constitutional amendments in 2015 and 2018.

In 2005, Republicans and their allies poured enormous resources into defeating the redistricting reform package on the ballot.

"There were ads suggesting that the reforms were somehow 'anti-family,' " Turcer said. "Then they came up with the 'faceless bureaucrat' argument, saying it should be left in the hands of elected officials. And they argued that we were just a bunch of disgruntled Democrats."

Ohio voters can expect more of the same from Republicans the next time the issue is on the ballot, Turcer said.

"This time, we will be ready for them," Turcer said. "And we'll have Maureen O'Connor on our side. That means a lot."
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.