On May 3, 2019, a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio ruled unanimously that Ohio’s congressional district plan constitutes an illegal partisan gerrymander. The court held that the plan, enacted in 2011 by a Republican legislature and governor, violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of Democrats. The ruling applies to all 16 of the state’s congressional districts.
The panel, comprised of Judges Karen Moore, appointed by Bill Clinton (D), Timothy Black, appointed by Barack Obama (D), and Michael Watson, appointed by George W. Bush (R), enjoined the state from conducting any future congressional elections under the 2011 plan.
The court ordered the state to enact a remedial plan by June 14, 2019. Should the state fail to meet this deadline, or should the state’s remedial plan fail to meet the approval of the court, the court may appoint a special master to draft a remedial plan. Ohio is a Republican trifecta, meaning Republicans control the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature.
This marks the second time in as many weeks that federal courts have struck down district plans as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. On April 25, 2019, a three-judge panel of the United District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled unanimously that 34 Michigan congressional and state legislative districts had been subject to unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering, violating Democrats’ First Amendment associational rights. The court also found that 27 of the 34 challenged districts violated the Democrats’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by diluting the impact of their votes.
The phrase partisan gerrymandering refers to the practice of drawing electoral district maps with the intention of favoring one political party over another. In contrast with racial gerrymandering, on which issue the Supreme Court of the United States has made rulings in the past affirming that such practices violate federal law, the high court has not, to date, made a ruling establishing clear precedent on the question of partisan gerrymandering. Two partisan gerrymandering cases – Rucho v. Common Cause and Benisek v. Lamone – are pending before the high court this term. Rulings are expected by the end of June.