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Supreme Court sets schedule for congressional redistricting lawsuit

Written on Dec 2, 2021

Provided by Hannah News Service 

The Ohio Supreme Court this week set an expedited briefing schedule for a lawsuit challenging congressional redistricting plan Senate Bill Senate Bill 258, denying a motion by the plaintiffs that would set oral arguments for February. 

Both sides of the lawsuit said the Court should expedite the lawsuit, but each side had its own idea of what that schedule might be and whether the Court could change election dates next year. 

The lawsuit, filed last week by the National Redistricting Action Fund on behalf of 12 Ohio voters, challenges SB 258 on the basis that it violates Article XIX of the Ohio Constitution which states that when passing a map without bipartisan support, the General Assembly "shall not pass a plan that unduly favors or disfavors a political party or its incumbents" and "shall not unduly split governmental units." 

Time available to decide the lawsuit is short: COVID-19 led to a significant delay in population data from the U.S. Census Bureau, impeding the ability of policymakers to complete the maps sooner. Pre-pandemic, that data would have been provided several months earlier, permitting those charged with map drawing to have adequate time to meet key deadlines. 

With the General Assembly facing a Nov. 30 deadline, Senate Republicans introduced the new Congressional map Nov. 15 and quickly moved it through the Senate and House despite the objections of legislative Democrats and voting rights groups. Gov. Mike DeWine signed SB 258 Nov. 20. 

Congressional candidates have until March 4 to file their petitions to appear on the May 3 primary ballot. Under the Ohio Constitution, should the Court strike down part or all of the map, the General Assembly would have 30 days to amend the plan, and if it fails to do so in that timeline, the Ohio Redistricting Commission would get 30 days to adopt a remedial map. 

Plaintiffs filed a motion last week asking the Court, which has authority in redistricting cases under the Ohio Constitution, to set a schedule for the lawsuit, and suggested a timeline that would culminate with oral arguments taking place Feb. 8. They suggested that the Court consider moving the primary candidate filing deadline – and perhaps the primary election date as well – to litigate the case. 

Attorney General Dave Yost, filing a response on behalf of named defendant Secretary of State Frank LaRose, called the proposed schedule by the plaintiffs "unworkable," adding that it "is entirely too long from an election administration perspective and would wreak havoc on the 2022 Primary Election for Ohio's 15 new congressional districts." 

The response noted that the current filing deadline for congressional candidates is only 24 days after the date the plaintiffs are suggesting for oral argument. The proposed schedule leaves no time for the Court to issue a ruling and still give candidates enough time to prepare their petitions and gather the required signatures before the filing deadline, it stated. County boards of elections also need time to verify the signatures on the petitions, certify candidate petitions, and consider protests to candidate petitions. Even if the Court would very quickly uphold the congressional plan after the suggested oral argument date, congressional candidates would still have mere days to complete these required tasks, Yost's response said. 

Additionally, it noted that county boards of elections have to finalize Uniform and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act ballots by March 18. 

Instead, Yost suggested a briefing schedule that wraps up Dec. 23. He said that the Court should not give the plaintiffs an "excessive amount of time to conduct discovery" on what was said or about earlier proposed plans that the General Assembly and the Ohio Redistricting Commission did not pass. He said the case comes down to expert discovery and the legal arguments. 

He also rejected moving the primary filing deadline or the primary itself. 

"They are grossly over-simplifying the downstream consequence of moving the 2022 primary election or any of its dates. Even if it was lawful to move the dates, it would be a logistical nightmare for the 88 county boards of elections," the response said. 

The Court, in its order, set the schedule as follows: Discovery shall be complete no later than Dec. 8; the parties shall file any evidence they intend to present no later than Dec. 10 by 4 p.m.; relators shall file a brief no later than Dec. 13 by 4 p.m.; respondents shall file a brief no later than Dec. 17 by 4 p.m.; and relators may file a reply brief no later than Dec. 20 by 4 p.m.