Justices send Ohio Statehouse maps back to drawing board

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A divided Ohio Supreme Court issued an extraordinary fourth rebuke of the state’s Republican-controlled redistricting panel on Thursday, declaring mapmakers’ latest maps for Statehouse districts were yet another partisan gerrymander.

The court set a May 6 deadline for completing the next plan.

In a vote by the same bipartisan 4-3 majority that ruled against the previous three maps, the court ordered the embattled and defiant Ohio Redistricting Commission back to the drawing board. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a moderate Republican, again joined the court’s three Democrats to form the majority, with the other three Republicans dissenting.

The new May 6 deadline falls after a Wednesday deadline set by the U.S. District Court for intervening on legislative maps if differences can’t be ironed out between the court and the commission. It wasn’t immediately clear how the ruling would impact the federal court’s path forward, since Ohio election officials had testified that April 20 was the drop-dead deadline for beginning preparations of a legislative primary now planned for Aug. 2.

Voting in the May 3 primary has already begun without legislative races listed.

In Thursday’s ruling, the court said the commission’s latest plan still violates a 2015 constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by Ohio voters. That amendment said the panel must attempt to avoid partisan favoritism and also must try to proportionally distribute districts to reflect Ohio’s political makeup, which is split at about 54% Republican, 46% Democratic.

Republicans argued that the fourth set of maps — like three earlier versions — met those requirements.

The plan was adopted in a flurry of activity, just hours before the last court-set deadline. The commission’s Republican majority declined to use the work of two independent mapmakers hired during that round to transparently carry out the painstaking process, saying the mapmakers’ couldn’t finish the work in time.

“The independent map drawers’ efforts were apparently little more than a sideshow — yet more fodder in this political sport,” Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote in his concurring opinion.

Justice Sharon Kennedy accused the majority of “yet another wiping-egg-from-its-face moment.”

“Now, after months have passed and thousands of taxpayer dollars have been spent, we are right back to where we were on September 21, 2021, (shortly before the first lawsuit was filed) without any end in sight,” Kennedy wrote in her dissent.

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