Ohio GOP legislators hire Raleigh lawyers who defended NC’s racial gerrymanders

Thomas Farr during a hearing on Capitol Hill when he was nominated by Donald Trump for U.S. District Court. His nomination did not go through. Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.

Defending themselves against accusations of gerrymandering, the Ohio House speaker and Senate president hired a team of lawyers with a history defending North Carolina against what a federal court called one of the “largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered.”

A spate of special interest and voter advocacy groups have filed four lawsuits alleging that Ohio officials produced maps that segment voters to give Republicans an unfair partisan advantage and cement in a veto-proof majority. House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman, both Republicans from Lima, opted against retaining counsel through the attorney general and hired their attorneys from the Nelson Mullins law offices in North Carolina.

Two lawyers they chose, Thomas Farr and Phillip Strach, are well-known in legal circles for defending North Carolina’s 2011 redistricting proposal and the state’s sweeping voter restriction law passed in 2013. After years of litigation, both were overturned by the courts, which found they were designed to dilute and disenfranchise Black voting power.

“It’s not a mistake. I’m sure they looked at their resumes and said, ‘Wow, we need them,’” said Bob Hall, former director of voter rights advocacy group Democracy North Carolina, of the hiring. “They’re hard-nosed, win by whatever it takes for their Republican clients.”

After hearing arguments on the North Carolina redistricting plan drawn and enacted in 2011, a three-judge federal court panel in 2017 stated the maps were “among the largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered by a federal court” that amount to a “widespread, serious, and longstanding” constitutional violation. In a similar lawsuit regarding the composition of two majority-Black congressional districts, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the maps, deeming them unlawful racial gerrymanders.

Nelson Mullins was first hired as “special counsel” Aug. 17 to “provide the Ohio General Assembly with redistricting advice,” according to a letter sent to Strach from the Attorney General’s Office, obtained in a public records request. Roughly one week later, the Ohio Redistricting Commission held its first public hearing. Republicans unveiled their first redistricting proposal Sept. 9. The North Carolina lawyers are representing the Ohio lawmakers in four lawsuits filed to date. Lawmakers have not appointed counsel in the fifth, filed last week.

Both Farr and Strach also defended North Carolina against a challenge to a 2013 North Carolina law that required voters to present state-issued identification at the polls, limited early voting, rolled back “souls to the polls” Sunday voting, ended same-day voter registration and more. A panel on the 4th Circuit of Appeals overturned the law on constitutional grounds. The judges wrote that the law targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision” and purports to solve voter fraud and other “problems that did not exist.” The U.S. Supreme Court declined to resurrect the law on an appeal.

A third lawyer representing Cupp and Huffman, John Branch, reportedly represented Republican Mark Harris in a state investigation after Harris’ campaign operative was criminally accused and later convicted of ballot fraud in a 2018 North Carolina congressional election.

Spokesmen for Cupp and Huffman did not respond to inquiries about the North Carolina lawyers’ role advising lawmakers on the maps or why or how they selected counsel. Strach did not respond to an email or voicemail. Farr declined to comment. Read more