COLUMBUS -- The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state's new legislative districts are constitutional, turning back a challenge brought by a former congressman and Democrats, who questioned the lines drawn by Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled apportionment board.
"In making our determination, we accord the apportionment board the deference it is afforded by the constitution in attempting to take into account various federal and state requirements by placing the burden on one challenging an apportionment plan to establish its unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt," Justice Terrence O'Donnell wrote in the majority decision. "Relators have failed to adduce sufficient, credible proof to carry this heavy burden."
But the decision was split, 4-3, with O'Donnell, Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and Robert Cupp and Appeals Court Judge John R. Willamowski concurring and Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and Justices Yvette McGee Brown and Paul Pfeifer joining in the dissent.
"Whichever political party has a majority of the members of the apportionment board uses apportionment to favor their partisan interests," McGee Brown wrote. "The majority's decision today ensures this will continue."
Reapportionment is completed every 10 years, after new census statistics pinpoint population changes throughout the state.
A five-member board oversees the process. During last year's deliberations, Kasich served as chairman, with Secretary of State Jon Husted, state Auditor Dave Yost and two members of the state Legislature (one from each party).
House Minority Leader Armond Budish was the lone Democrat on the board.
Republican backers of the apportionment plan that was adopted and in place for this month's general election said changes were made based on "significant population shifts," not partisan considerations. Seventeen Senate districts and 61 House districts either grew or shrunk to levels that required new boundaries.
But critics of the plan said the lines were set to create 61 of 99 House districts and 21 of 33 Senate districts that favored Republicans. Former Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson and nearly three dozen others filed suit hoping to force new lines to be drawn.
In their complaint before the Supreme Court, the group contended that the apportionment board unnecessarily divided counties, cities and other political subdivisions "to advance the partisan aims of the... Republican majority."
They also allege the authors of the plan "worked in secret with Republican members of the apportionment board, their agents and Republican political operatives to ensure that the plan adopted ... would best achieve Republican political interests" in violation of the state constitution.
But in its majority ruling Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court found that the state constitution does not mandate neutrality in redrawing state House and Senate districts and that there was no proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the maps were unconstitutional.
O'Donnell wrote, "The words used in Article XI do not explicitly require political neutrality, or for that matter, politically competitive districts or representational fairness, in the apportionment board's creation of state legislative districts. Unlike Ohio, some states specify in either constitutional or statutory language that no apportionment plan shall be drawn with the intent of favoring or disfavoring a political party."
He added, "... the Ohio Constitution does not mandate political neutrality in the reapportionment of House and Senate districts, but partisan considerations cannot prevail over the requirements set forth in Article XI. As long as the 2011 apportionment plan satisfied the constitutional requirements set forth in Article XI, respondents were not precluded from considering political factors in drafting it."
In their dissent, Justices McGee Brown and Pfeifer wrote that the adopted plan resulted in too many splits -- "In total, 39 counties (out of 88) have been split 74 times. The lack of compactness is self-evident."
Pfeifer added, "Having reviewed the adopted plan and compared it with the submitted evidence, I reluctantly conclude that the constitutional challenge has merit. The board should be directed to reconvene... for the purpose of adopting a revised plan that more nearly optimizes ... compactness and minimization of splits of governmental units."
Republican House Speaker Bill Batchelder said he was pleased with the decision.
"It is a recognition that the system works," he said. "I think this particular decision underlines the importance of the system that presently exists. Perhaps later to have some modification or amendment, but at this time, it works."
Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.