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CSAD hosts Maureen O’Connor for Constitution Day talk

CSAD hosts Maureen O’Connor for Constitution Day talk

COURTESY OF KENYON CSAD

On Wednesday, Maureen O’Connor, former chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, gave a lecture titled “The Challenges and Triumph of Democracy in Ohio…What’s Next?” The talk, which was sponsored by the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) in honor of Constitution Day, focused on Ohio’s past struggles with a powerful state legislature and partisan gerrymandering and suggested a path forward.

The event was the first CSAD lecture of the semester and was held in a packed Oden Hall Auditorium. Acting President Jeff Bowman introduced O’Connor as a dedicated public servant who served as a probate court magistrate, Common Pleas Court judge and lieutenant governor of Ohio before being elected to the Ohio Supreme Court in 2002 and becoming its first female chief justice in 2011. There O’Connor, a Republican, joined Democratic justices in rejecting multiple congressional maps drawn by state officials. She has continued to advocate for redistricting reform since retiring in 2022.

O’Connor began her lecture with an overview of the history of Ohio’s two state constitutions. The first was approved by the Constitutional Convention in 1802, three months before Ohio became a state. The drafters of the constitution created an exceptionally powerful legislature and a comparatively weak executive and judiciary, hoping to avoid another leader like Arthur St. Clair, the first governor of the Northwest Territory.

Although this structure worked at first, it began to falter as Ohio’s population grew. The state’s second constitution, ratified in 1851, placed limits on the legislature’s authority and gave voters the opportunity to decide every twenty years whether or not to hold a constitutional convention — a provision that was included to combat gerrymandering, according to O’Connor. 

Both Ohio’s constitution and the Constitution of the United States “are the very embodiment of democracy,” O’Connor said, and they have changed along with American democracy itself. In 1912, Ohio progressives created the ability to amend the state constitution through a simple majority vote. 

The state still faces significant challenges, according to O’Connor. She cited Issue 1, which would have raised the threshold to amend the constitution to sixty percent ahead of an abortion measure this November. Ohio is also “one of the most gerrymandered states in the country,” she said, adding that the redistricting amendments in 2015 and 2018 were flawed because the redistricting commission was filled with politicians who were interested in their own party’s success.

“They say that history repeats itself,” O’Connor said. “I see present-day politics in Ohio as dangerous for democracy if left unchecked.”

 Just as 19th- and 20th-century Ohioans used the constitutional tools at their disposal to fix the problems, so too can Americans in the 21st century, according to O’Connor. Her solution is to amend Ohio’s constitution with a measure that would create a “truly independent” citizens’ redistricting commission and a fully transparent map-drawing process. Voters’ success in defeating Issue 1 is a good sign that an initiative like this would succeed. 

“We will keep the constitutional right to citizen empowerment to circumvent the legislature when it is not responsive to the needs of Ohioans,” she said.

Director of CSAD and Professor of Political Science and International Studies Joseph Klesner enjoyed the lecture.

“O’Connor effectively conveyed two key messages — that gerrymandering is a grave threat to democracy and that in Ohio we have the constitutional tools to make the changes necessary to end the practice of gerrymandering,” he wrote in an email to the Collegian.

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