The political battle over redistricting in Ohio was at the forefront of comments made by elected officials during the annual Marion County Republican Party’s Harding Day Dinner on Thursday evening in Waldo.
The Ohio Supreme Court has rejected two statehouse maps proposed by Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission and one congressional map. The high court is currently reviewing the latest version of both maps.
Activist groups, including the National Redistricting Action Fund, led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and the American Civil Liberties Union, have filed lawsuits against the maps.
Calling the issue “the fight of our life,” Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon L. Kennedy delivered a stern message to her fellow GOP members on Thursday evening, stating that she believes that groups like the one led by Holder and ActBlue, a non-profit technology organization that assists with fundraising efforts for Democratic Party candidates and progressive groups, are attempting to unduly influence the process in Ohio.
“Every year I tell you how important it is to think about the judicial branch,” Kennedy said. “The impact they have on your daily life. Many people don’t see it and they still don’t understand, but I’ll use one state’s name; Pennsylvania, where a secretary of state changed election day in violation of the constitution and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rubber-stamped it, and said, ‘Oh well. We’re going to give you more days.’
“That is what’s happening with ActBlue. That is what’s happening with Eric Holder and that is what’s happening right now in Ohio because they were fighting to put judges on the Ohio Supreme Court that would do what they’re doing with redistricting.”
Kennedy, who is running for chief justice on the court this year, has opposed striking down GOP-approved statehouse and congressional maps that have come before the court. The court, which has a Republican majority, has so far ruled that all the maps submitted have been unconstitutionally gerrymandered. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican who cannot seek reelection because of age, has sided with the court’s three Democrats in each of those decisions.
Kennedy is facing Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner in November for the chief justice position. Republicans last fall called on Brunner to recuse herself from redistricting cases for speaking out on the issue during her campaign.
Brunner Campaign spokesman Chris Davey said Kennedy’s comments were concerning.
“When a candidate for Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court calls pending litigation about the constitutionality of Ohio’s districts ‘the fight of our life,’ she’s obviously conveying her views about the case,” Davey said in a statement. “Criticizing the founder of one of the organizations bringing the action raises serious questions about whether Justice Kennedy can be impartial. She should recuse herself and do it now.”
Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who was the keynote speaker for the Marion County GOP event, said he believes that the Ohio Supreme Court has “waded into an inherently political matter” with its rulings on the state’s congressional maps. He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has, in his opinion, “been wise” in regard to the issue of redistricting when it has reached that court.
“Redistricting is an inherently political process,” LaRose said. “The U.S. Supreme Court has been wise to steer clear of redistricting because there’s no bright line test that you can look at in the law as it relates to this. … In recent years, repeatedly, including just recently in a court case involving North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court has said, ‘We are the apolitical branch of government. We don’t do politics. We read black and white letter of the law and we interpret that, and that’s what we do.’
LaRose is one of the seven members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission and voted in favor of the maps the court has rejected.
“I think, in hindsight, the Ohio Supreme Court has gotten a little too deep into a process that is an inherently political process, but again, there are individuals that are elected to the Ohio Supreme Court, I respect the rule of law, and they’re empowered to be able to do what they do.”
LaRose echoed Kennedy’s concerns about the influence of left-leaning activist groups on the redistricting process in Ohio and other states.
“They go to the east coast and they go to the west coast and they raise a bunch of money on false claims about voter suppression and this kind of thing,” he said. “Then they want to come into a state like Ohio and pour in a bunch of money to try and put a liberal activist in charge of elections, to be very candid. I don’t think you want an activist secretary of state. I don’t think you want an activist Republican; I don’t think you want an activist Democrat.”
State Rep. Riordan McClain, R-Upper Sandusky, said he believes that the Ohio Supreme Court is overstepping its authority in regard to congressional redistricting.
“I think that the Supreme Court has not interpreted the ballot initiative (passed by state voters in 2018) correctly and has really interjected itself into the process here,” McClain said. “We have 10-year maps and then we have a fall back of a 4-year map if we can’t get to that 10-year bipartisan agreement that we all hoped we would. I am concerned that we’re going to have perpetual 4-year maps into the future seeing how this process played out.
“I think we need to take a look at it and how we can make it better, how we can improve this process to make sure that we get through it in a much more bipartisan, a much more clean process than what we saw this time, because it was certainly not what anybody intended.”
State Rep. Tracy Richardson, R-Marysville, said she’s concerned that the redistricting process has become “a circus” and that any potential delays will have an adverse effect on the integrity of the election process.
“I have to say, it really raises an eyebrow and makes me question the direction that we’re going,” Richardson said. “I know that the Redistricting Commission did the work they were asked to do and twice the (Ohio Supreme Court) has found it not to meet the standard as identified in the (Ohio) constitution. I would say this kind of delay does not serve the people of the state well, and I would genuinely urge (the Ohio Supreme Court) not only to rule, but to rule in favor of the recommendation of the Redistricting Commission.”