CINCINNATI (AP) — A panel of federal judges ruled Friday that Ohio's congressional districts were unconstitutionally drawn by the Republicans for their political advantage, and it ordered a new map for the 2020 elections.
The ruling, if it stands, could prove an important victory for the Democrats, who are hoping redrawn boundaries will not only help them pick up House seats but also energize voters and boost turnout in this longtime battleground state, helping them defeat President Donald Trump.
The panel unanimously declared the current map an "unconstitutional partisan gerrymander," saying the GOP-controlled Ohio Legislature put the Democrats at a disadvantage by packing them into four districts and scattering them across the remaining 12.
"Democratic candidates must run a significantly longer distance to get to the same finish line," the judges wrote in a 301-page ruling.
The Republicans hold a 12-4 advantage in Ohio's congressional delegation under the current map, which went into effect for the 2012 elections.
The ruling is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is already considering what could prove to be a major gerrymandering case, involving challenges to congressional maps in North Carolina, drawn by Republicans, and Maryland, created by Democrats.
A message left with Ohio's Republican attorney general for comment was not immediately returned.
Some Democrats have said that after years of lopsided congressional races, newly competitive districts could generate voter excitement in a state that Trump won in 2016 after Barack Obama carried it twice. And that, in turn, could influence the White House race.
"That could very well change the turnout for the presidential race," said Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper said. "It's a bad day for Republicans in Washington, and it's a bad day for Donald Trump."
The judges — Karen Allen Moore, Timothy Black and Michael Watson — ordered a proposed new map by June 20. Moore and Black were nominated by Democratic presidents, Watson by a Republican. They heard arguments in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati in March.
Voters' rights and Democratic groups had sued Ohio Republican officials, saying redistricting after the 2010 census yielded a map that has produced an impenetrable GOP advantage. Among the examples cities was Cincinnati, a Democrat-dominated city split into two districts, both held by Republicans.
Another example was Ohio's 9th Congressional District, which stretches eastward in a long skinny line along Lake Erie and has been dubbed "the Snake on the Lake." In their ruling, the judges described it as "a bizarre, elongated sliver of a district that severed numerous counties."
Attorneys for the Republicans said the map was drawn with bipartisan support and noted that each party lost one seat after reapportionment reduced Ohio's House delegation because of population shifts. The delegation went from 13-5 Republican to 12-4.
"This is called democracy in action," said GOP attorney Phil Strach, adding that both parties supported "incumbency protection" — or making it more likely an incumbent will win — because that benefits all Ohioans by giving their delegation more clout in Washington.
In a case similar to Ohio's, a three-judge panel ruled last week that Michigan's congressional and legislative maps were unconstitutionally gerrymandered, and ordered the state Legislature to redraw some districts for 2020. The judges wrote that the GOP created districts in 2011 with the goal of ensuring "durable majorities" for Republicans. Republicans have appealed that ruling.
The lawsuit challenging Ohio's current map called it "one of the most egregious gerrymanders in recent history," one that has reliably done its job by allowing the GOP to capturee 75% of the seats by winning a little more than half the state's votes.
The longest-serving woman in House history was among the plaintiffs' witnesses. Nineteen-term Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo said her district, the elongated 9th, was "hacked apart," forcing her into a Democratic primary with veteran Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland in 2012. She won, knocking him out of Congress.
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus contributed to this report.