COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Ohio’s population has grown by nearly 1 million since 1990 — a sign for two Republican lawmakers that it’s time to reconfigure the state’s appeals court districts.

Forty years have passed since Ohio last redrew its 12 appellate districts, prompting state Reps. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) and Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) to propose amending their shapes and bolstering them with additional judges to better reflect a district’s population, according to a copy of the proposal. If enacted, Ohio’s 69 appeals court judges, their caseloads, and interpretations of the state’s Constitution will be shifted to new parts of the state.

The proposal would be the third type of redistricting map laid on the table for the state to consider this year, after a costly, back-and-forth battle over the design of Ohio’s congressional and legislative maps.

“Ohio should really look at some of the structural problems with the courts and think about the caseloads that judges have. We really want a good-functioning appellate court,” Common Cause Ohio Executive Director Catherine Turcer said. “But what we don’t want is to draw those district lines so they favor one political party over the other.”

What do Ohio’s appellate court judges do?

Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati)
Rep. Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill)

Ohio’s 69 appeals court judges are tasked with determining, as part of a three-judge panel that rotates its membership, whether a lower court’s assessment of a case was accurate under the state’s constitution, according to retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer, a Republican who leads the Ohio Judicial Conference.

Whether it be a case to uphold Ohio’s six-week abortion ban or an attempt to limit the state’s regulatory control over corporations, Turcer said appeals court judges and the constitutional decisions they make “can have real consequences” for Ohioans.

November will mark the first time that party labels will appear next to the names of candidates running for Ohio Supreme Court or any of its appellate courts, a move that Turcer, whose nonprofit advocates for good government and voting rights, said could influence a candidate’s shot at victory.

“We want all of our judges to be both independent and impartial,” Turcer said. “Some of this arm-wrestling over Democrat or Republican is really painful because, at the end of the day, this is supposed to be about determining what’s in the Ohio Constitution.”

Plan redraws map, adds judgeships

The number of appellate court districts, 12, remains the same under Seitz’s and Stephens’ proposal. Some of Ohio’s 88 counties, however, would fall under the purview of new districts and new judges.

“We want to make sure that the appellate court is not overly burdened, meaning these folks need time to consider and weigh options and read all of the materials and to be really thoughtful,” Turcer said. “So it does make sense to think about and discuss changing the appeals court. I’m certainly not opposed to that.”

For Pfeifer, “there’s no question that the political alignment” of Ohio’s appellate court districts – particularly in District 1 which only oversees left-leaning Hamilton County – piqued Seitz’s and Stephens’ interest in introducing the proposed map. Seitz declined a request for an interview, and Stephens did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

For instance, the proposal tacks onto District 1 two solidly Republican counties, Brown and Clermont, which overwhelmingly favored Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, according to the counties’ boards of elections. Hamilton County voters, however, favored Joe Biden, who lost in Ohio but won the election, by nearly 15 points.

“Hamilton County has changed a lot,” Pfeifer said. “That was always regarded as a rock-ribbed Republican county, and now it’s gone the other way.”

The makeup of District 8, home to only the solidly Democrat Franklin County, will not change, the proposal reads. But the county is an example of an area where Republican judicial candidates are no longer running as Republicans because they feel deterred from running for office, Pfeifer said.

“Franklin was more of a toss-up county, and now we’re seeing situations where judges who had filed before as Republicans are changing their party because they don’t think they can survive as a Republican,” he said.

District make-up isn’t the only thing that changes under Seitz’s and Stephens’ proposal, Pfeifer said. Judgeships will also be added or removed from an appellate court district – dependent upon the district’s population size – to evenly spread the caseload among judges.

For judges, staffers, and attorneys whose districts are altered, Pfeifer said their lives could be upended under the new proposal, not only when it comes to their commute to work but also in the types of cases they hear.

“Since we do elect our judges, one has a natural concern of saying, ‘Hey, no, I’ve got to learn the folks in new counties that I didn’t represent before, and I’m losing counties where I had a lot of friends and a comfortable base,’” he said.

Could Ohio have another redistricting debate?

Fresh off a months-long redistricting debate that led to Ohio holding two primary elections — which Turcer described as a “slow-motion, constitutional crisis” — the Seitz-Stephens proposal comes at a contentious time for map-making in the state.

Unlike Ohio’s congressional and legislative maps, the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission – whose maps were deemed unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court on numerous occasions, even though both have Republican majorities – will not be responsible for redrawing appellate court lines, Turcer said. Instead, the proposal will work its way through both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly.

“The state legislature will determine these district lines, hopefully, based on input from judges, input from people in the community, input from people that are caring about fair courts,” she said.

While Turcer said she considers herself a glass half-full, walking-on-sunshine type of person, the Ohio Redistricting Commission’s failed track record in designing constitutional maps leaves her in doubt that the legislature’s GOP supermajority will craft fair, non-gerrymandered districts.

“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and the Ohio Redistricting Commission has been motivated by partisan interests repeatedly; they have rebuffed the Ohio Supreme Court’s orders,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine that mapmaking will be better unless something really changes.”

Given the complexity of such a change, Pfeifer said he’s inclined to think that lawmakers will not consider a finished, polished version of the bill until 2023.