Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor could be wild card in any redistricting ruling: Thomas Suddes – cleveland.com

If Statehouse Republicans are really determined to ram through new, even-more-pro-GOP General Assembly districts, Ohio’s Supreme Court is the only thing that can get in the way.

The Ohio Constitution gives the high court “exclusive, original jurisdiction in all cases” arising under the constitution’s district-drawing reform, which voters OK’d big time in 2015. The reform created a Redistricting Commission to replace the old Apportionment Board. Currently, the GOP runs the Redistricting Commission 5-2.

Unless they’re just negotiating-table theatrics, it appears the panel’s five GOP commissioners are prepared to approve grossly pro-GOP districts without the votes of the panel’s two Democrats. The districts would be in effect for four years, not the usual 10 years. (If Republican commissioners could woo the two Democratic commissioners into voting for GOP-drawn Ohio House and Senate districts, those districts would stay in effect for 10 years, not four.)

There is some GOP risk in opting for four-year, GOP-drawn districts, but a lot can happen in four years. In 2017, there was no assurance that Republican Mike DeWine would be governor today, or Joe Biden president. Meanwhile, at least through December 2022, Republicans will run the state Supreme Court 4-3. That suggests the high court would be unlikely to throw out GOP-drawn districts.

There’s one big variable, though: lame-duck Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who thinks for herself — and doesn’t suffer fools gladly (which can be a challenge, given the General Assembly’s current membership). Republicans privately concede that the chief justice might be a wild card in any challenge to GOP-drawn legislative districts.

Meanwhile, a Statehouse veteran called to mind another factor for bystanders to remember. Districts aren’t necessarily destiny: Rigged districts don’t always work.

The Apportionment Board, run in 1981 by Democrats, drew state Senate districts that, paradoxically, still let Republicans, led by then-Sen. Paul E. Gillmor, of Old Fort, win control of Ohio’s Senate in November 1984 — and keep it ever since.

Similarly, an Apportionment Board run in 2001 by Republicans drew Ohio House districts that, also paradoxically, let Democrats, led by then-Rep. Armond Budish, a Greater Clevelander, win control of the Ohio House in 2008 (albeit, just for two years).

And Republicans are skating on very thin ice by conceding that for this, that and the other reason, they didn’t take race into account in drawing their map. The GOP can lavish on that decision all the double-talk it wants, but it has to be — and should be, and will be — a red flag to Ohioans of color.

What about: No sooner does a Republican get criticized than some readers gripe because, hey, don’t Democrats ever mess up? They sure do. But the complainers overlook one stark fact: Your neighbor’s pet cat may sometimes have more say about what happens at the Statehouse than Democrats.

Since 1983, Democrats have held the governorship for 12 years, Republicans for 26 (including the last 10). Republicans have run the state Supreme Court since 1987, the state Senate since 1985, and the Ohio House since 1995 (except, as noted, in 2009 and 2010).

Sure, there was a “liberal agenda” during Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste’s administration, but it ended in January 1991 — 30 years ago. And Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, a Greater Cleveland Democrat, was a committed liberal.

But a couple of things happened in 1994 that helped spearhead Democrats’ downward spiral in state politics: Twenty-year Democratic House Speaker Vern Riffe retired, and Tuscarawas County Democrat Rob Burch, 1994′s Democratic nominee for governor, drew a disastrous 25% of the statewide vote, handing GOP Gov. George V. Voinovich a second term. Then, the 2007-10 governorship of Democrat Ted Strickland seemed adrift, as did Budish’s 2009-10 speakership.

For federal offices, in contrast, Ohioans twice cast the state’s electoral votes for Democrat Bill Clinton and twice for Democrat Barack Obama; sent Democrat John Glenn to the Senate four times; and have sent Democrat Sherrod Brown to the Senate three times.

But none of those Democrats runs a thing at the Statehouse; neither does Biden, Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer. Republicans skipper the Statehouse. And if the S.S. Statehouse veers off course, or runs aground, bystanders aren’t called to account. The ship’s captain and its officers are.

Thomas Suddes, a member of the editorial board, writes from Athens.

To reach Thomas Suddes: tsuddes@cleveland.com, 216-408-9474

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