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Supreme Court Upholds 2011 Legislative Redistricting Plan as Constitutional

Constitutional Redrawn Districts Stand.

Constitutional Redrawn Districts Stand.

Constitutional Redrawn Districts Stand.

The Supreme Court of Ohio today upheld as constitutional the state apportionment board’s 2011 redrawing of legislative districts for the Ohio General Assembly.

In a 4-3 decision authored by Justice Terrence O’Donnell, the court based its ruling on findings that:

  1. The Ohio Constitution does not mandate political neutrality in the reapportionment of legislative districts, but does require that partisan considerations cannot prevail over the nonpartisan requirements set forth in Article XI.
  2. The burden of proof in a constitutional challenge to an apportionment plan is borne by the challenging party, which must establish that the plan violates the Constitution beyond a reasonable doubt. Absent proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a plan is unconstitutional, a court reviewing an apportionment plan must presume that the apportionment board acted properly and in a lawful manner.
  3. When the requirements of coequal sections of Article XI are irreconcilable, it is the duty of the apportionment board to choose the proper course, and the court will not order the board to remedy a violation of one section of Article XI by violating another section.
  4. The requirement of Article XI, Section 7(D) that district boundaries from the preceding apportionment should be retained to the extent reasonably consistent with proportional representation is co-equal with the requirement of  Article XI, Sections 7 (A), (B) and (C) that entire counties, cities and other political subdivisions be placed within a single legislative district whenever feasible.  Because those requirements are irreconcilable, the court will not order the board to correct violations of Sections 7(A),(B) and (C) by violating Section 7(D).

The case arose from an original action filed in the Supreme Court by Charles Wilson and a group of other voters who reside in areas of the state that were affected by the legislative redistricting plan developed by  the state apportionment board in 2011. 

Article XI of the Ohio Constitution requires that in the year following each decennial U.S. census, a five-member apportionment board must conduct a reapportionment of the Ohio General Assembly (redrawing of Ohio House and Senate districts) to reflect changes in the state’s population since the preceding census and redistricting. The 2011 apportionment board consisted of Governor John Kasich, Secretary of State Jon Husted, Auditor of State David Yost and Ohio Senate President Thomas Niehaus, all Republicans, and House Minority Leader Armond Budish, a Democrat. 

When a majority of the apportionment board has agreed on a new map setting forth the geographic boundaries of all House and Senate districts, the board files that map with the Secretary of State, and the boundaries set by the board define the districts from which members of the General Assembly will be elected for the next 10 years. Neither the overall redistricting map nor the boundaries of individual districts set by the apportionment board are subject to ratification by the General Assembly, approval by the Governor, or a vote of the people. Under Article XI, Section 13, a party seeking to challenge the board’s conduct of the redistricting process, or the lawfulness of any of the new district boundaries established by the board, may do so only by filing an original action in the Supreme Court of Ohio.

The apportionment board filed its redistricting plan with the Secretary of State in September 2011. In January 2012, Wilson and his co-relators filed suit in the Supreme Court pursuant to Article XI, Section 13.

In their complaint, the relators asked the court to declare that the 2011 redistricting plan was unconstitutional and therefore invalid, and order the board to develop a new plan. The relators based their complaint primarily on allegations that the board-approved redistricting map included multiple violations of Sections 7(A), (B) and (C) of Article XI, which require that district boundaries must be drawn to keep entire counties, townships, cities and villages within the same legislative  district whenever it is “feasible” to do so without violating equal representation requirements.

Because the relators’ complaint was not filed until shortly before the deadline for candidates in   2012 state legislative races to file their election petitions in the newly drawn districts, the court issued an order allowing the 2012 election to be conducted using the new Ohio House and Senate district boundaries drawn by the 2011 apportionment board.  The court also held, however, that the relators’ challenge to the reapportionment plan for future election cycles beyond 2012 was not barred by laches (unreasonable delay in filing their challenge), and agreed to consider written briefs and hear oral arguments by the parties on the issues raised in the complaint. After reviewing written pleadings, including supplemental briefs on several issues raised by the court on its own initiative, the court heard oral arguments in the case on April 24, 2012.

Writing for the majority in today’s decision, Justice O’Donnell emphasized that the language of Article XI gives the members of the apportionment board broad discretion in determining the proper interplay between the requirements imposed by the article’s various sections. He also cited prior court decisions, including the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Voinovich v. Ferguson, which have held that in reviewing a challenge to a board-approved redistricting plan, the court must defer to the board’s reasonable construction and balancing of the requirements of Article XI.

After applying that deferential standard of review, and examining the evidence adduced by the relators in light of their burden to show that the board’s plan is unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt, Justice O’Donnell concluded that the court must uphold the redistricting plan approved by the apportionment board and deny the relators’ petition.

In arriving at that conclusion, Justice O’Donnell rejected the relators’ primary argument that the board’s plan must be overturned because it violated the requirements of Sections 7(A), (B) and (C) of Article XI, by unnecessarily dividing counties, cities and other political subdivisions into separate legislative districts when an alternative map submitted by the relators’ expert showed it was feasible to have placed those entities in a single district without violating equal representation requirements. In response to that claim, Justice O’Donnell pointed to evidence produced by the apportionment board showing that, in order to assign each of the divided communities to a single legislative district, the board  would have to violate a different provision of Article XI, Section 7(D), which requires that “(i)n making a new apportionment, district boundaries established by the preceding apportionment shall be adopted to the extent reasonably consistent with the requirements of section 3 of this Article.”

Justice O’Donnell wrote: “This court does not sit as a super apportionment board to determine whether a plan presented by the relators is better than the plan adopted by the board. Instead, we determine whether the board acted within the broad discretion conferred upon it by the provisions of Article XI when it adopted its plan. ... The role of a supreme court in considering constitutional challenges to an apportionment plan is restricted to determining whether relators have met their burden to prove that the plan adopted by the board is unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“In fulfilling our limited role, we read together the constitutional provisions that are in pari materia (relating to the same subject), and we attempt to give full application to every part of each of them unless they are irreconcilable and in hopeless conflict. ... If there is an irreconcilable conflict, the special provision prevails over the general provision, unless the general provision was adopted later and the manifest intent is that the general provision prevail. ... But if the sections are coequal − that is, if neither is more specific and both were adopted at the same time − then the apportionment board is empowered to apply either one of them. ... Consequently, when coequal provisions of Article XI of the Ohio Constitution are irreconcilable, the apportionment board has the duty to choose the proper course, and this court will not order it to correct one constitutional violation by committing another.”

Justice O’Donnell’s opinion was joined by Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and Robert R. Cupp and Judge John R. Willamowski  of the Third District Court of Appeals, sitting for Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer and Justice Yvette McGee Brown entered separate dissenting opinions, both of which were joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

In his dissent, Justice Pfeifer wrote: “In order to justify its finding of constitutionality, the majority opinion expresses two conclusions of questionable legitimacy; these anchors of the majority opinion fail the tests of logic and fairness. First the majority opinion erects a nearly insurmountable barrier to a successful constitutional challenge by assigning to the board’s actions a blanket presumption of constitutionality and requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt to establish that the plan fails to meet all constitutional requirements. ...  Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is typically necessary only in criminal cases. Such a high burden of proof in the current constitutional matter turns this court into a rubber stamp, not the guardian of the constitution that it is designed to be.”

“Next, the majority adopts the board’s secondary argument, concluding that Section 7(D) can subsume and override the express directives of Sections 7(A), 7(B), and 7(C) regarding the compactness of districts and the requirement to minimize splits.  Section 7(D), properly interpreted, directs the board to follow the district lines of the prior apportionment where possible. But unless Section 7(D) is subservient to the paragraphs above it, a board could justify the adoption of an incumbent-protecting apportionment plan and forgo any effort to achieve compactness and minimize splits of governmental units. ... Based on the majority opinion, provisions of a prior plan that are patently unconstitutional would be protected, possibly forever, by the dominion granted to Section 7(D) over the critically important Sections 7(A), 7(B), and 7(C). ... Because of this plan’s serial violations of the Section 7 constitutional mandate for compactness of legislative districts and minimization of governmental-unit splits ... remapping is required.”

In her separate opinion, Justice McGee Brown noted that both Republicans and Democrats have used prior reapportionments to their political advantage, and rejected the respondent’s argument that the 2011 board was bound by previous apportionment board decisions because “the boundaries of districts created at the end of the [apportionment] process are greatly affected by decisions made in districts created earlier,” so that any constitutional violations in the latter districts are within the board’s discretionary authority to make. She wrote: “This claim − which equates to ‘because we have already violated the constitution, we can continue to violate the constitution’ − lacks merit. The procedure in Section 10 is subordinate to the substantive constitutional requirements in Sections 3 and 7(A), (B), (C), and (D) of Article XI.”

“The majority’s interpretation of Section 7(D) authorizes innumerable violations of Sections 7(A), (B), and (C) by allowing unnecessary divisions of governmental units based on a nonexistent requirement that the boundaries of new districts be substantially similar to those in the preceding apportionment districts. By applying a malleable standard of substantial adherence to previous district lines, an apportionment board could condone a myriad of violations of Article XI to achieve partisan gain. The citizens of Ohio could not have intended this absurd result when they adopted Section 7(D).”

Justice McGee Brown went on to cite evidence in the record showing that, notwithstanding the requirement of Article XI, Section 7(A) that districts must be drawn to contain “one or more whole counties” whenever feasible, “(T)he joint secretaries of the 2011 apportionment board admitted that in its redistricting plan ‘the division of Holmes County for House District 70, Athens, Pickaway, and Muskingum Counties for House District 78, Auglaize and Shelby Counties for House District 84, Ross County for House District 91, Athens, Vinton, and Washington Counties for House District 94, and Washington County for House District 95, are not required by the applicable provisions of Article XI.’”

“On the record before this court,” she wrote, “relators have established beyond a reasonable doubt that respondents violated Article XI, Section 7(A) by unnecessarily dividing the specified counties in House Districts 70, 78, 84, 91, 94, and 95.“

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

2012-0019. Wilson v. Kasich, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-5367.
Original Action filed pursuant to Ohio Constitution, Article XI, Section 13.  Relief denied.
Willamowski, O’Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
O’Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer and McGee Brown, JJ., dissent.
John R. Willamowski, J., of the Third Appellate District, sitting for Lundberg Stratton, J.

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

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