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Former Ohio Chief Justice continues fight against gerrymandered maps

Retiring Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio Maureen O’Connor
Posted at 6:07 PM, Aug 18, 2023

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When her Ohio Supreme Court decisions were ignored by Republicans, former Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor vowed to fix what she calls a broken system. She is now the face of a bipartisan movement to stop gerrymandering by overhauling the redistricting system.

Once the most powerful woman in the state, O’Connor was age-limited out of the Court.

"What have I been doing since I've retired?" O'Connor said in an interview Wednesday with Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau. "If I had to do a title, it would be redistricting, redistricting, redistricting."

The Republican became the leader in the fight against gerrymandering in 2022, ruling seven times that GOP-backed district and congressional maps were unconstitutional.

"The Republicans were interested in a supermajority, maintaining a supermajority," she said. "Those are the considerations that are the antithesis of fair maps."

She is helping to lead a new effort to change how Ohio draws maps. She said her four-decade-long career in public service, plus her experience in "the trenches" of the redistricting mess, should give voters the trust that she has their best interest in mind.

"I need to be involved in this and champion it," she said.

Coalition Citizens Not Politicians has put forward a constitutional amendment for the November 2024 ballot.

RELATED: Proposed constitutional amendment seeks to end gerrymandering after legislature defied courts

The proposal creates the 15-member Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission (OCRC) made up of Republican, Democratic and independent citizens who broadly represent the different geographic areas and demographics of the state.

It bans current or former politicians, political party officials, lobbyists and large political donors from sitting on the commission.

It requires fair and impartial districts by making it unconstitutional to draw voting districts that discriminate against or favor any political party or individual politician. It also mandates the commission to operate under an open and independent process.

Read the full amendment here.

This proposal comes with fierce opposition.

"People on redistricting commission need to be accountable, and the only people that are accountable are those who are elected," state Rep. Adam Bird (R-New Richmond) said.

Bird, like many Republican lawmakers, opposes this idea and wants to keep the current setup.

The Ohio Redistricting Commission (ORC) is made up of seven spots. Two will always go to Republicans and two to Democrats in the Statehouse. The three remaining seats include the governor, secretary of state and auditor.

"I am of the opinion that the maps were constitutional," Bird said about the legislative maps that were shut down five times, and the twice-rejected congressional maps. "They became more gerrymandered as we went along in order to try to comply with the court's requests."

He added that O’Connor was the one who was trying to make the maps gerrymandered by requiring compact districts, something that is in the state constitution.

The makeup of the citizen commission would be much worse than having politicians draw the maps, Bird argued.

"The five independents — does anyone really believe that independents are independent?" he asked. "I don't believe that, and I think that most people agree with me on that — nobody's truly independent."

The amendment has specific guidelines on transparency. Citizens will be vetted by a bipartisan screening panel of four retired judges, along with the Ohio Ballot Board.

Republicans would never buy this, Bird said, especially not from O'Connor.

"I don't know that she's a Republican," he said. "I don't see any evidence of that."

In a one-on-one interview with O'Connor back in Dec., she rolled her eyes and laughed at these kinds of comments from Republicans who are mad about her having a different opinion and calling them out.

RELATED: 'I did not want them to… portray the victim’ — Why the Ohio Redistricting Commission wasn’t held in contempt

“So-called citizen-led commissions are anything but that; they are proxy votes and puppets of partisan special interest groups,” Senate President Matt Huffman's spokesperson John Fortney said.

Opponents with this mindset need to read the actual document, O'Connor retorted.

"There's built-in transparency, there is no puppet master, there will not be a puppet master," O'Connor said, also adding that it was a "dog-whistle type of response." "And quite frankly, that's insulting to the citizens of Ohio and to the men and women that are going to step forward and exercise their civic responsibility in joining this effort."

Redistricting laws changed in 2018. There was a huge outcry to combat gerrymandering in the years leading up to that election. By a nearly 75-25% vote, Ohioans chose a new redistricting system, one that was supposed to prevent supermajority power from dictating maps.

This redistricting system was "doomed to fail" from the start, the former justice added.

"The overarching problem with both amendments?" she said. "It was the makeup of the redistricting commission."

The lawmakers found a way to exploit it, she said.

"It became abundantly clear that the politicians employing political considerations were in charge of mapmaking, and that did not bode well for the districts and the way the maps were drawn," she said.

When asked if it was fair that politicians who drew the maps were the ones who would also directly benefit from the maps, Bird said it's not like that.

"The redistricting commission has people on it that, by the way, the majority of the members are not directly beneficiaries," he responded.

Four of the seven commissioners are always directly impacted. In Ohio's current supermajority, the three executive positions would also benefit from a GOP stronghold, since they tend to have the same goals.

"This is happening because the most recent redistricting commission meeting didn't go your way, and we've only lived under this one time," Bird said. "Can we at least give it a second chance or a third chance before some people think it needs to be thrown out?"

The Citizens Not Politicians group says no.

The new proposed constitutional amendment is one step in getting actual honest representation in our state government, O'Connor said.

News 5 asked how different she thinks Ohio would be if the state had maps that she believed were fair.

"I think we would be a more moderate state," she said. "And I think that's a good thing."

Ohio would still be Republican-leaning, she said, but there would be more competition.

"The best thing that will happen in the future will be that the extremes of both parties will not be the majority in the legislature," she said. "I believe that having a supermajority is a problem."

She then quoted Senate President Matt Huffman, who told the Columbus Dispatch that because of the supermajority, the GOP "can kind of do what we want."

"That's not leadership," she said. "I think that attitude speaks for itself."

What's next

The Attorney General has 10 days to determine if the petition and summary are a fair and truthful statement of the proposed constitutional amendment. Once the petition is certified, the AG forwards it to the Ohio Ballot Board, which has 10 days to determine if it contains only one constitutional amendment.

After Ballot Board certification, the AG must file a verified copy of the proposed constitutional amendment and summary, along with the AG's certification, with the Ohio Secretary of State.

At that point, the petitioners may begin to collect the required 413,487 valid signatures of registered voters by July 3, 2024 to qualify for the 2024 Ohio General Election Ballot.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.