“If courts don’t uphold the rule of law,” tweeted former Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper, “there is no rule of law.”
Last week the Ohio Supreme Court proved him right. The Republican members of the Ohio Redistricting Commission — tasked with drawing fair legislative districts maps — openly defied the court and violated the Ohio Constitution. Again.
The state supreme court’s response? Nary a judicial slap on the wrist. Sure, the court’s majority did its share of chastising and handwringing over what the Republican commissioners pulled with the hubris of untouchable operators. But that’s all. The court acknowledged that the partisan players on the commission “engaged in a stunning rebuke of the rule of law” and then threw its hands up as an institution. Oh well.
Hello? That is not how you uphold the law. Not how you reinforce the foundational principle that no one — not the governor, secretary of state, auditor, Senate President, House Speaker — is above the law. That is letting the party that controls all the political levers in the state do whatever it damn well pleases regardless of how many court rulings or constitutional mandates it flouts.
By all rights, the state’s highest court should have thrown the book at the GOP majority members of the commission for their galling disobedience to the court and constitution. The fifth General Assembly district map submitted to the court by the redistricting commissioners was the same one that had been ruled unconstitutional two maps back! That is how insignificant a hurdle the partisan panelists considered the Ohio Supreme Court to be in their quest to circumvent the constitution.
And they were right.
The same court that had ordered the Republican-dominant commission to draw an entirely new map in conformity with the constitution, received instead a resubmitted map now twice rejected. A remarkable disregard of a supreme court ruling. Yet the high court refused to penalize the commission for ignoring its own orders. Without explanation, it declined to hold the commissioners in contempt for (again) thumbing their noses at the court — and the rule of law.
At this writing, state Senate President Matt Huffman, instrumental in masterminding the 2012 set of skewed district maps to benefit one party over another, is no doubt congratulating himself for doing the same thing a decade later. He broke all the rules of redistricting reform with impunity. He (and his commission cohorts) made a mockery of the process established by Ohio voters through two amendments to the constitution mandating fair, competitive, representative districts. Huffman et al did what they wanted not what was required.
But that’s what untouchable operators do who are not constrained by court or constitutional requirements on redistricting. They pay no price for their lawlessness. The cost is borne by law-abiding citizens stuck in contorted districts where competing votes are meaningless and elections a forgone conclusion. Where Democratic voters in Ohio are marginalized in even fewer districts to minimize political influence. The 2020 election in Ohio was held in gerrymandered districts ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. The 2022 election in Ohio will be held in districts ruled unconstitutional by the state supreme court. It’s as though nothing has changed. But something has.
There is no rule of law in Ohio anymore. One party nullified it in a test of power with the judicial branch and won. The court of last resort on the law all but conceded failure in upholding it on its last ruling. It recognized that the Republican ringleaders on the commission — aided by a federal edict that an unconstitutional map would suffice barring approval of a constitutional one — had absolutely no incentive to follow the law or adhere to Ohio Supreme Court orders.
In a lame rejoinder, the court held out faint hope that commission members would uphold “their oaths of office as elected officials — oaths that are taken not to ensure that one political party has a supermajority but to obey Ohio Constitution.” Please. The court could have held them to account for brazen violation of the redistricting law of Ohio. It did not and is weakened as a citadel of justice where the law is supposed to rule not political operators.
But here we are. The Ohio Supreme Court, the ACLU of Ohio and the League of Women Voters of Ohio have all bailed on us in fighting for fair districts for yet another election cycle. At least the Democratic nominee for attorney general, running to uphold the law in Ohio, hasn’t given up on lawbreakers scheming to subvert it. State Rep. Jeff Crossman filed a criminal complaint against the Republicans on the redistricting commission for dereliction of duty.
Asking the Ohio State Highway Patrol to investigate GOP commissioners who “recklessly failed to perform a duty expressly imposed by law with respect to the public servant’s office” is, of course, a longshot. But Crossman’s focus on responsibility — “If it’s found that they broke the law and failed to follow the Constitution, I’m asking for real accountability” — should be widely welcomed by all Ohioans weary of a state mired in corruption and abuse of power.
Do we value the rule of law enough to demand it of our political leaders or not?
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