Parties face off in court over OH legislative maps

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By JULIE CARR SMYTH, Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The fate of Ohio's newly drawn legislative map is in the balance Tuesday as lawyers spar before the Ohio Supreme Court over whether Republicans who controlled the process gerrymandered the lines for political gain outside of public view.

Justices are set to hear arguments in a constitutional challenge brought by Democrats on behalf of a group of affected voters in January. The high court has said it will time its decision not to affect the 2012 presidential race in the closely watched swing state.

Democrats want the map thrown out on grounds that Republican state leaders who controlled the process violated provisions of the Ohio Constitution, including a prohibition against splitting up communities. The litigation says the maps of 99 House and 33 Senate districts split cities, counties and other community units more than 250 times, seeking political advantage for Republican candidates.

They also want the maps declared invalid because of alleged violations of the state open-meetings law that occurred during their creation. Court filings include accounts of majority Republicans who controlled the process conducting map-making work in a secret hotel room near the Statehouse but out of view of the public.

State officials named in the lawsuit, including Gov. John Kasich and Senate President Tom Niehaus, have responded that politics is an inevitable and acceptable part of the process for drawing legislative lines — it just can't be the exclusive motivator. They argue nothing in the state Constitution requires absolute neutrality when it comes to creating state House and Senate districts.

They want opponents to be required to prove — district by district, and beyond a reasonable doubt — that politics was their sole consideration. That's because they don't believe it can be done.

Officials defending the map say the role of party politics is implied by the fact Ohio places authority for the process in the hands of a five-member Apportionment Board of elected officials. The panel this year included Kasich, Niehaus, Secretary of State Jon Husted and Auditor David Yost, all Republicans; and House Minority Leader Armond Budish, a Democrat.

The Apportionment Board voted 4-1 along party lines in the fall to accept the new map. It was filed with Husted's office in September and is intended to be in place through 2021.

Ohio redraws legislative districts every 10 years to reflect population shifts identified in the U.S. census.

Republicans and Democrats were given similar sums of taxpayer money to cover supplies, software, office space and consulting in what's called the apportionment process. In a separate proceeding, Republicans have questioned the propriety of how Democrats spent some of their money.

The seven-member Supreme Court is made up of six Republicans and one Democrat.

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