In one of the final acts in a 24-year political career, the Republican chief justice of the Ohio supreme court is defying her party and refusing to let them distort electoral districts to their advantage, a move that has some fellow Republicans calling for her impeachment .
Since January, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has served as the decisive vote on three separate occasions blocking Ohio Republicans from enacting proposed state legislative maps. She also sided with Democrats to block an initial GOP proposal for congressional districts before going into effect in January. Those decisions have prompted chatter among Republicans about impeaching O’Connor, 70, who will leave the court after nearly two decades at the end of this year because she has reached the mandatory retirement age for judges in Ohio.
O’Connor has a long independent streak. A decade ago, she joined a dissent when the supreme court upheld the state legislative districts drawn by Republicans. “I broke away from the mold in some people’s minds,” she would later say of that decision. “Party affiliation should not – and people have to understand it should not – have anything to do with how a judge does their job.”
In 2018, she joined the lone Democrat on the court to dissent from a ruling upholding the forced closure of the last abortion clinic in Toledo. She has backed criminal justice and bail reform, as other Ohio Republicans are pushing to make it harder for someone to be released on bond. She has called for less partisan influence in the way judges are elected in the state. In 2020, just before the presidential election, she blasted the state Republican party for accusing a local judge of colluding with Democrats, saying the attack was “disgraceful and deceitful”.
“She’s not shrinking violet. She’s got sharp elbows,” said Paul Pfeifer, a Republican who served on the supreme court with O’Connor from when she joined in 2003 until he retired in 2017. “No amount of public criticism is going to change her mind if she feels that she’s right in the position she’s taking.”
William O’Neill, a Democrat who served with O’Connor on the court from 2013 to 2019, said she was the justice he wound up voting with the most. They were the only two members of the court who dissented in 2018 in the Toledo abortion clinic case.
“She can be swayed to reasonable arguments,” he said. “Her legacy of her is already carved in stone. The stand she is taking is consistent with her entire career.
She’s also one of the most successful politicians in the history of Ohio, said David Pepper, a former chair of the Ohio Democratic party. She’s been elected five times statewide, none of which have been closed. The then Ohio governor, Robert Taft, picked the former prosecutor to be his running mate in 1998 to add law enforcement experience to the ticket. Once she was elected lieutenant governor, she oversaw the state’s department of public safety, taking on a leading role after the 9/11 attacks. She would travel overseas with troops being deployed from Ohio, even though that does not typically fall within the responsibilities of her role.
“She took the initiative to do that and I would say it was above and beyond what she would have to do in her role,” Taft said in an interview. “She was part of our team but she was also her own person. She was an independent thinker.”
She was elected to the court in 2002, and became chief justice in 2010.
Now, O’Connor and the court are not backing down in their refusal to let Republicans in the state get away with one of the most brazen efforts to gerrymander electoral districts to their benefit.
A new provision in the Ohio constitution requires partisan makeup of the state’s 132 legislative districts roughly reflect the partisan breakdown of statewide elections over the last decade, which is 54% Republican and 46% Democrat. The three plans Republicans have passed so far, and a fourth one currently pending before the court, however, would enable Republicans to win a veto-proof majority in the legislature in a favorable year for the party.
“The constitutional violations of the maps that the Ohio redistricting commission continues to pass are obvious,” said Jen Miller, the executive director of the Ohio chapter of the League of Women Voters, which is involved in suits challenging the plans.
Republicans have forged a sneaky attempt to enact their maps. The initial plan the court struck down in January would have given them control of 64.4% of districts. They then submitted a new plan to the court that nominally had the required 54-46 split, but several of the districts were barely a Democratic majority – essentially toss-ups – meaning Republicans could still win them in a favorable election. After the court rejected that plan, Republicans came back with a third plan that slightly increased the Democratic majority in those districts, which was again rejected by the court. Last month, Republicans submitted a fourth plan that took the same approach.
“It’s a pure power play,” said Paul Beck, a retired political science professor at the Ohio State University. “It’s almost like they’re saying we have the power to do this and so we’re gonna do it.”
O’Connor has bluntly called out the way Ohio Republicans are abusing the redistricting process. The first time the court struck down the legislative maps, back in January, she went out of her way to write a concurring opinion urging Ohio voters to strip lawmakers of their redistricting power entirely.
“Having now seen first-hand that the current Ohio Redistricting Commission– comprised of statewide elected officials and partisan legislators – is seemingly unwilling to put aside partisan concerns as directed by the people’s vote, Ohioans may opt to pursue further constitutional amendment to replace the current commission with a truly independent, nonpartisan commission that more effectively distances the redistricting process from partisan politics,” she wrote.
The standoff has left Ohio at a chaotic impasse. Unlike supreme courts in other states, like Virginia that have stepped in to draw maps, the Ohio supreme court is prohibited from making its own plan. Early voting began on 5 April without state legislative districts on the ballot. Last month, a coalition of civic action groups challenged the maps to request that the redistricting commission be held in contempt for failing to comply with the court’s orders.
The hard line from O’Connor and three other Democrats on the supreme court, where Republicans have a 4-3 majority, is extremely consequential. This is the first redistricting cycle the partisan fairness requirements are in effect (voters approved them overwhelmingly through a ballot measure in 2015). By refusing to accept the Republican maps, O’Connor and the court are setting a precedent that signals how aggressively the justices are going to police partisan gerrymandering.
“The consequence of caving would be a disaster. This has gone from a battle over democracy in Ohio to a battle over democracy and the rule of law in Ohio,” said Pepper, the former Democratic party chair. “No other citizens who violate the law four times get rewarded for it.”
After the court blocked Republican maps for the third time, Republicans in the statehouse began openly weighing her impeachment, according to the Columbus Dispatch. “It’s time to impeach Maureen O’Connor now,” Scott Wiggam, a GOP state Representative, tweeted. “I don’t understand what the woman wants,” state representative Sara Carruthers told the Dispatch. Ohio’s secretary of state, Frank LaRose, a Republican who sits on the panel that draws districts, said recently he would not stand in the way of an impeachment effort, saying “she has not upheld her oath of office”.
Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine, a Republican who also sits on the redistricting panel, has been more outspoken against impeachment. “I don’t think we want to go down that pathway because we disagree with a decision by a court, because we disagree with a decision by an individual judge or justice,” he said in March.
Though it’s unclear if the impeachment effort will move forward, many doubted it would succeed.
Both O’Neill and Pfeifer, the former justices who served with O’Connor said they were confident the impeachment efforts would not affect her work. “What in the world is she supposed to have done that violated her oath of office?,” O’Neill said.
“It will have the opposite effect of what they’re seeking.”