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Cooper v. Harris

United States Supreme Court

May 22, 2017

ROY COOPER, GOVERNOR OF NORTH CAROLINA, ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
DAVID HARRIS, ET AL.

          Argued December 5, 2016

         ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA

         The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevents a State, in the absence of "sufficient justification, " from "separating its citizens into different voting districts on the basis of race." Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Bd. of Elections, 580 U.S. ___, ___. When a voter sues state officials for drawing such race-based lines, this Court's decisions call for a two-step analysis. First, the plaintiff must prove that "race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature's decision to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district." Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900, 916. Second, if racial considerations did predominate, the State must prove that its race-based sorting of voters serves a "compelling interest" and is "narrowly tailored" to that end, Bethune-Hill, 580 U.S., at ___. This Court has long assumed that one compelling interest is compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA or Act). When a State invokes the VRA to justify race-based districting, it must show (to meet the "narrow tailoring" requirement) that it had "good reasons" for concluding that the statute required its action. Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, 575 U.S. ___, ___. A district court's factual findings made in the course of this two-step inquiry are reviewed only for clear error. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 52(a)(6); Easley v. Cromartie, 532 U.S. 234, 242 (Cromartie IT).

         This case concerns North Carolina's redrawing of two congressional districts, District 1 and District 12, after the 2010 census. Prior to that re districting, neither district had a majority black voting-age population (BVAP), but both consistently elected the candidates preferred by most African-American voters. The new map significantly altered both District 1 and District 12. The State needed to add al- most 100, 000 people to District 1 to comply with the one-person-one-vote principle, and it chose to take most of those people from heavily black areas of Durham-increasing the district's BVAP from 48.6% to 52.7%. The State also reconfigured District 12, increasing its BVAP from 43.8% to 50.7%. Registered voters in those districts (here called "the plaintiffs") filed suit against North Carolina officials (collectively, "the State" or "North Carolina"), complaining of impermissible racial gerrymanders. A three-judge District Court held both districts unconstitutional. It found that racial considerations predominated in the drawing of District l's lines and rejected the State's claim that this action was justified by the VRA. As for District 12, the court again found that race predominated, and it explained that the State made no attempt to justify its attention to race in designing that district.

         Held:

         1. North Carolina's victory in a similar state-court lawsuit does not dictate the disposition of this case or alter the applicable standard of review. Before this case was filed, a state trial court rejected a claim by several civil rights groups that Districts 1 and 12 were unlawful racial gerrymanders. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed that decision under the state-court equivalent of clear error review. The State claims that the plaintiffs are members of the same organizations that brought the earlier case, and thus precluded from raising the same questions anew. But the State never satisfied the District Court that the alleged affiliation really existed. And because the District Court's factual finding was reasonable, it defeats North Carolina's attempt to argue for claim or issue preclusion here.

         The State's backup argument about the proper standard of review also falls short. The rule that a trial court's factual findings are reviewed only for clear error contains no exception for findings that diverge from those made in another court. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 52(a)(6). Although the state court's decision is certainly relevant, the premise of clear error review is that there are often "two permissible views of the evidence." Anderson v. Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 574. Even assuming that the state court's findings capture one such view, the only question here is whether the District Court's assessment represents another. Pp. 7-10.

         2. The District Court did not err in concluding that race furnished the predominant rationale for District l's redesign and that the State's interest in complying with the VRA could not justify that consideration of race. Pp. 10-18.

         (a) The record shows that the State purposefully established a racial target for the district and that the target "had a direct and significant impact" on the district's configuration, Alabama, 575 U.S., at ___, subordinating other districting criteria. Faced with this body of evidence, the District Court did not clearly err in finding that race predominated in drawing District 1; indeed, it could hardly have concluded anything but. Pp. 10-12.

         (b) North Carolina's use of race as the predominant factor in designing District 1 does not withstand strict scrutiny. The State argues that it had good reasons to believe that it had to draw a majority-minority district to avoid liability for vote dilution under §2 of the VRA. Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, identifies three threshold conditions for proving such a vote-dilution claim: (1) A "minority group" must be "sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority" in some reasonably configured legislative district, id., at 50; (2) the minority group must be "politically cohesive, " id., at 51; and (3) a district's white majority must "vote[] sufficiently as a bloc" to usually "defeat the minority's preferred candidate, " ibid. If a State has good reason to think that all three of these conditions are met, then so too it has good reason to believe that §2 requires drawing a majority-minority district. But if not, then not.

         Here, electoral history provided no evidence that a §2 plaintiff could demonstrate the third Gingles prerequisite. For nearly 20 years before the new plan's adoption, African-Americans made up less than a majority of District l's voters, but their preferred candidates scored consistent victories. District 1 thus functioned as a "crossover" district, in which members of the majority help a "large enough" minority to elect its candidate of choice. Bartlett v. Strickland, 556 U.S. 1, 13 (plurality opinion). So experience gave the State no reason to think that the VRA required it to ramp up District l's BVAP.

         The State counters that because it needed to substantially increase District l's population, the question facing the state mapmakers was not whether the then-existing District 1 violated §2, but whether the future District 1 would do so if drawn without regard to race. But that reasoning, taken alone, cannot justify the State's race-based redesign of the district. Most important, the State points to no meaningful legislative inquiry into the key issue it identifies: whether a new, enlarged District 1, created without a focus on race, could lead to §2 liability. To have a strong basis to conclude that §2 demands race-based measures to augment a district's BVAP, the State must evaluate whether a plaintiff could establish the Gingles preconditions in a new district created without those measures. Nothing in the legislative record here fits that description. And that is no accident: The redistricters believed that this Court's decision in Strickland mandated a 50%-plus BVAP in District 1. They apparently reasoned that if, as Strickland held, §2 does not require crossover districts (for groups insufficiently large under Gingles), then §2 also cannot be satisfied by crossover districts (for groups meeting Gingles' size condition). But, as this Court's §2 jurisprudence makes clear, unless each of the three Gingles prerequisites is established, "there neither has been a wrong nor can be a remedy." Growe v. Emison, 507 U.S. 25, 41. North Carolina's belief that it was compelled to redraw District 1 (a successful crossover district) as a majority-minority district thus rested on a pure error of law. Accordingly, the Court upholds the District Court's conclusion that the State's use of race as the predominant factor in designing District 1 does not withstand strict scrutiny. Pp. 12-18.

         3. The District Court also did not clearly err by finding that race predominated in the redrawing of District 12. Pp. 18-34.

         (a) The district's legality turns solely on which of two possible reasons predominantly explains its reconfiguration. The plaintiffs contended at trial that North Carolina intentionally increased District 12's BVAP in the name of ensuring preclearance under §5 of the VRA. According to the State, by contrast, the mapmakers moved voters in and out of the district as part of a "strictly" political gerrymander, without regard to race. After hearing evidence supporting both parties' accounts, the District Court accepted the plaintiffs'.

         Getting to the bottom of a dispute like this one poses special challenges for a trial court, which must make "'a sensitive inquiry'" into all " 'circumstantial and direct evidence of intent'" to assess whether the plaintiffs have proved that race, not politics, drove a district's lines. Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 546 (Cromartie I). This Court's job is different-and generally easier. It affirms a trial court's factual finding as to racial predominance so long as the finding is "plausible"; it reverses only when "left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Anderson, 470 U.S., at 573-574. In assessing a finding's plausibility, moreover, the Court gives singular deference to a trial court's judgments about the credibility of witnesses. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 52(a)(6). Applying those principles here, the evidence at trial-including live witness testimony subject to credibility determinations-adequately supports the District Court's conclusion that race, not politics, accounted for District 12's reconfiguration. And contrary to the State's view, the court had no call to dismiss this challenge just because the plaintiffs did not proffer an alternative design for District 12. Pp. 18-21.

         (b) By slimming the district and adding a couple of knobs to its snakelike body, North Carolina added 35, 000 African-Americans and subtracted 50, 000 whites, turning District 12 into a majority-minority district. State Senator Robert Rucho and State Representative David Lewis-the chairs of the two committees responsible for preparing the revamped plan-publicly stated that racial considerations lay behind District 12's augmented BVAP. Specifically, Rucho and Lewis explained that because part of Guilford County, a jurisdiction covered by §5 of the VRA, lay in the district, they had increased the district's BVAP to ensure preclearance of the plan. Dr. Thomas Hofeller, their hired mapmaker, confirmed that intent. The State's preclearance submission to the Justice Department indicated a similar determination to concentrate black voters in District 12. And, in testimony that the District Court found credible, Congressman Mel Watt testified that Rucho disclosed a majority-minority target to him in 2011. Hofeller testified that he had drawn District 12's lines based on political data, and that he checked the racial data only after he drew a politics-based line between adjacent areas in Guilford County. But the District Court disbelieved Hofeller's asserted indifference to the new district's racial composition, pointing to his contrary deposition testimony and a significant contradiction in his trial testimony. Finally, an expert report lent circumstantial support to the plaintiffs' case, showing that, regardless of party, a black voter in the region was three to four times more likely than a white voter to cast a ballot within District 12's borders.

         The District Court's assessment that all this evidence proved racial predominance clears the bar of clear error review. Maybe this Court would have evaluated the testimony differently had it presided over the trial; or then again, maybe it would not have. Either way, the Court is far from having a "definite and firm conviction" that the District Court made a mistake in concluding from the record before it that racial considerations predominated in District 12's design. Pp. 21-28.

         (c) Finally, North Carolina argues that when race and politics are competing explanations of a district's lines, plaintiffs must introduce an alternative map that achieves a State's asserted political goals while improving racial balance. Such a map can serve as key evidence in a race-versus-politics dispute, but it is hardly the only means to disprove a State's contention that politics drove a district's lines. In this case, the plaintiffs' introduction of mostly direct and some circumstantial evidence gave the District Court a sufficient basis, sans any map, to resolve the race-or-politics question. Although a plaintiff will sometimes need an alternative map, as a practical matter, to make his case, such a map is merely an evidentiary tool to show that an equal protection violation has occurred; neither its presence nor its absence can itself resolve a racial gerrymandering claim.

         North Carolina claims that a passage of this Court's opinion in Cromartie II makes an alternative map essential in cases like this one, but the reasoning of Cromartie II belies that reading. The Court's opinion nowhere attempts to explicate or justify the categorical rule that the State claims to find there, and the entire thrust of the opinion runs counter to an inflexible counter-map requirement. Rightly understood, the passage on which the State relies had a different and narrower point: Given the weak evidence of a racial gerrymander offered in Cromartie II, only maps that would actually show what the plaintiffs' had not could carry the day. This case, in contrast, turned not on the possibility of creating more optimally constructed districts, but on direct evidence of the General Assembly's intent in creating the actual District 12-including many hours of trial testimony subject to credibility determinations. That evidence, the District Court plausibly found, itself satisfied the plaintiffs' burden of debunking North Carolina's politics defense. Pp. 28-34. 159 F.Supp.3d 600, affirmed.

          KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which THOMAS, GlNSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, J., joined. GORSUCH, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

          OPINION

          KAGAN JUSTICE.

         The Constitution entrusts States with the job of designing congressional districts. But it also imposes an important constraint: A State may not use race as the predominant factor in drawing district lines unless it has a compelling reason. In this case, a three-judge District Court ruled that North Carolina officials violated that bar when they created two districts whose voting-age populations were majority black. Applying a deferential standard of review to the factual findings underlying that decision, we affirm.

         I

         A

         The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits racial gerrymanders in legislative districting plans. It prevents a State, in the absence of "sufficient justification, " from "separating its citizens into different voting districts on the basis of race." Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Bd. of Elections, 580 U.S. ___, ___ (2017) (slip op., at 6) (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). When a voter sues state officials for drawing such race-based lines, our decisions call for a two-step analysis.

         First, the plaintiff must prove that "race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature's decision to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district." Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900, 916 (1995). That entails demonstrating that the legislature "subordinated" other factors-compactness, respect for political subdivisions, partisan advantage, what have you-to "racial considerations." Ibid. The plaintiff may make the required showing through "direct evidence" of legislative intent, "circumstantial evidence of a district's shape and demographics, " or a mix of both. Ibid.[1]

         Second, if racial considerations predominated over others, the design of the district must withstand strict scrutiny. See Bethune-Hill, 580 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 13). The burden thus shifts to the State to prove that its race-based sorting of voters serves a "compelling interest" and is "narrowly tailored" to that end. Ibid. This Court has long assumed that one compelling interest is complying with operative provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA or Act), 79 Stat. 437, as amended, 52 U.S.C. §10301 et seq. See, e.g., Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899, 915 (1996) (Shaw II).

         Two provisions of the VRA-§2 and §5-are involved in this case. §§10301, 10304. Section 2 prohibits any "standard, practice, or procedure" that "results in a denial or abridgement of the right ... to vote on account of race." §10301(a). We have construed that ban to extend to "vote dilution"-brought about, most relevantly here, by the "dispersal of [a group's members] into districts in which they constitute an ineffective minority of voters." Thorn-burg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 46, n. 11 (1986). Section 5, at the time of the districting in dispute, worked through a different mechanism. Before this Court invalidated its coverage formula, see Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013), that section required certain jurisdictions (including various North Carolina counties) to pre-clear voting changes with the Department of Justice, so as to forestall "retrogression" in the ability of racial minorities to elect their preferred candidates, Beer v. United States, 425 U.S. 130, 141(1976).

         When a State invokes the VRA to justify race-based districting, it must show (to meet the "narrow tailoring" requirement) that it had "a strong basis in evidence" for concluding that the statute required its action. Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, 575 U.S. ___, ___ (2015) (slip op., at 22). Or said otherwise, the State must establish that it had "good reasons" to think that it would transgress the Act if it did not draw race-based district lines. Ibid. That "strong basis" (or "good reasons") standard gives States "breathing room" to adopt reasonable compliance measures that may prove, in perfect hindsight, not to have been needed. Bethune-Hill, 580 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 16).

         A district court's assessment of a districting plan, in accordance with the two-step inquiry just described, warrants significant deference on appeal to this Court.[2] We of course retain full power to correct a court's errors of law, at either stage of the analysis. But the court's findings of fact-most notably, as to whether racial considerations predominated in drawing district lines-are subject to review only for clear error. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 52(a)(6); Easley v. Cromartie, 532 U.S. 234, 242 (2001) (Cromartie II); id., at 259 (THOMAS, J., dissenting). Under that standard, we may not reverse just because we "would have decided the [matter] differently." Anderson v. Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573 (1985). A finding that is "plausible" in light of the full record-even if another is equally or more so-must govern. Id., at 574.

         B

         This case concerns North Carolina's most recent redrawing of two congressional districts, both of which have long included substantial populations of black voters. In its current incarnation, District 1 is anchored in the northeastern part of the State, with appendages stretching both south and west (the latter into Durham). District 12 begins in the south-central part of the State (where it takes in a large part of Charlotte) and then travels northeast, zig-zagging much of the way to the State's northern border. (Maps showing the districts are included in an appendix to this opinion.) Both have quite the history before this Court.

         We first encountered the two districts, in their 1992 versions, in Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993). There, we held that voters stated an equal protection claim by alleging that Districts 1 and 12 were unwarranted racial gerrymanders. See id., at 642, 649. After a remand to the District Court, the case arrived back at our door. See Shaw II, 517 U.S. 899. That time, we dismissed the challenge to District 1 for lack of standing, but struck down District 12. The design of that "serpentine" district, we held, was nothing if not race-centric, and could not be justified as a reasonable attempt to comply with the VRA. Id., at 906; see id., at 911-918.

         The next year, the State responded with a new districting plan, including a new District 12-and residents of that district brought another lawsuit alleging an impermissible racial gerrymander. A District Court sustained the claim twice, but both times this Court reversed. See Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541 (1999) (Cromartie I); Cromartie II, 532 U.S. 234. Racial considerations, we held, did not predominate in designing the revised District 12. Rather, that district was the result of a political gerrymander-an effort to engineer, mostly "without regard to race, " a safe Democratic seat. Id., at 245.

         The State redrew its congressional districts again in 2001, to account for population changes revealed in the prior year's census. Under the 2001 map, which went unchallenged in court, neither District 1 nor District 12 had a black voting-age population (called a "BVAP") that was a majority of the whole: The former had a BVAP of around 48%, the latter a BVAP of around 43%. See App. 312, 503. Nonetheless, in five successive general elections conducted in those reconfigured districts, all the candidates preferred by most African-American voters won their contests-and by some handy margins. In District 1, black voters' candidates of choice garnered as much as 70% of the total vote, and never less than 59%. See 5 Record 636, 638, 641, 645, 647 (Pis. Exh. 112). And in District 12, those candidates won with 72% of the vote at the high end and 64% at the low. See id., at 637, 640, 643, 646, 650.

         Another census, in 2010, necessitated yet another congressional map-(finally) the one at issue in this case. State Senator Robert Rucho and State Representative David Lewis, both Republicans, chaired the two committees jointly responsible for preparing the revamped plan. They hired Dr. Thomas Hofeller, a veteran political map-maker, to assist them in redrawing district lines. Several hearings, drafts, and revisions later, both chambers of the State's General Assembly adopted the scheme the three men proposed.

         The new map (among other things) significantly altered both District 1 and District 12. The 2010 census had revealed District 1 to be substantially underpopulated: To comply with the Constitution's one-person-one-vote principle, the State needed to place almost 100, 000 new people within the district's boundaries. See App. 2690; Evenwel v. Abbott, 578 U.S. ___, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 3) (explaining that "[s]tates must draw congressional districts with populations as close to perfect equality as possible"). Rucho, Lewis, and Hofeller chose to take most of those people from heavily black areas of Durham, requiring a finger-like extension of the district's western line. See Appendix, infra. With that addition, District l's BVAP rose from 48.6% to 52.7%. See App. 312-313. District 12, for its part, had no need for significant total-population changes: It was overpopulated by fewer than 3, 000 people out of over 730, 000. See id., at 1150. Still, Rucho, Lewis, and Hofeller decided to reconfigure the district, further narrowing its already snakelike body while adding areas at either end-most relevantly here, in Guilford County. See Appendix, infra; App. 1164. Those changes appreciably shifted the racial composition of District 12: As the district gained some 35, 000 African-Americans of voting age and lost some 50, 000 whites of that age, its BVAP increased from 43.8% to 50.7%. See 2 Record 349 (Fourth Affidavit of Dan Frey, Exh. 5); id., at 416 (Exh. 11).

         Registered voters in the two districts (David Harris and Christine Bowser, here called "the plaintiffs") brought this suit against North Carolina officials (collectively, "the State" or "North Carolina"), complaining of impermissible racial gerrymanders. After a bench trial, a three-judge District Court held both districts unconstitutional. All the judges agreed that racial considerations predominated in the design of District 1. See Harris v. McCrory, 159 F.Supp.3d 600, 611 (MDNC 2016). And in then applying strict scrutiny, all rejected the State's argument that it had a "strong basis" for thinking that the VRA compelled such a race-based drawing of District l's lines. Id., at 623. As for District 12, a majority of the panel held that "race predominated" over all other factors, including partisanship. Id., at 622. And the court explained that the State had failed to put forward any reason, compelling or otherwise, for its attention to race in designing that district. See ibid. Judge Osteen dissented from the conclusion that race, rather than politics, drove District 12's lines-yet still characterized the majority's view as "[e]minently reasonable." Id., at 640.

         The State filed a notice of appeal, and we noted probable jurisdiction. McCrory v. Harris, 579 U.S. ___ (2016).

         II

         We address at the outset North Carolina's contention that a victory it won in a very similar state-court lawsuit should dictate (or at least influence) our disposition of this case. As the State explains, the North Carolina NAACP and several other civil rights groups challenged Districts 1 and 12 in state court immediately after their enactment, charging that they were unlawful racial gerrymanders. See Brief for Appellants 19-20. By the time the plaintiffs before us filed this action, the state trial court, in Dickson v. Rucho, had rejected those claims-finding that in District 1 the VRA justified the General Assembly's use of race and that in District 12 race was not a factor at all. See App. 1969. The North Carolina Supreme Court then affirmed that decision by a 4-3 vote, applying the state-court equivalent of clear error review. See Dickson v. Rucho, 368 N. C. 481, 500, 781 S.E.2d 404, 419 (2015), modified on denial of reh'g, 368 N. C. 673, 789 S.E.2d 436 (2016), cert, pending, No. 16-24. In this Court, North Carolina makes two related arguments based on the Dickson litigation: first, that the state trial court's judgment should have barred this case altogether, under familiar principles of claim and issue preclusion; and second, that the state court's conclusions should cause us to conduct a "searching review" of the decision below, rather than deferring (as usual) to its factual findings. Reply Brief 6.

         The State's preclusion theory rests on an assertion about how the plaintiffs in the two cases are affiliated. As the State acknowledges, one person's lawsuit generally does not bar another's, no matter how similar they are in substance. See Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880, 892-893 (2008) (noting the "deep-rooted historic tradition that everyone should have his own day in court"). But when plaintiffs in two cases have a special relationship, a judgment against one can indeed bind both. See id., at 893-895 (describing six categories of qualifying relationships). The State contends that Harris and Bowser, the plaintiffs here, are members of organizations that were plaintiffs in Dickson. And according to North Carolina, that connection prevents the pair from raising anew the questions that the state court previously resolved against those groups. See Brief for Appellants 20-21.

         But North Carolina never satisfied the District Court that the alleged affiliation really existed. When the State argued that its preclusion theory entitled it to summary judgment, Harris and Bowser responded that they were not members of any of the organizations that had brought the Dickson suit. See 3 Record 1577-1582 (Defs. Motion for Summary Judgment); 4 Record 101-106 (Pis. Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment). The parties' dueling contentions turned on intricate issues about those groups' membership policies (e.g., could Harris's payment of dues to the national NAACP, or Bowser's financial contribution to the Mecklenburg County NAACP, have made either a member of the state branch?). Because of those unresolved "factual disputes, " the District Court denied North Carolina's motion for summary judgment. 4 Record 238 (July 29, 2014 Order). And nothing in the subsequent trial supported the State's assertion about Harris's and Bowser's organizational ties: Indeed, the State chose not to present any further evidence relating to the membership issue. Based on the resulting record, the District Court summarily rejected the State's claim that Harris and Bowser were something other than independent plaintiffs. See 159 F.Supp.3d, at 609.

         That conclusion defeats North Carolina's attempt to argue for claim or issue preclusion here. We have no basis for assessing the factual assertions underlying the State's argument any differently than the District Court did. Nothing in the State's evidence clearly rebuts Harris's and Bowser's testimony that they never joined any of the Dickson groups. We need not decide whether the alleged memberships would have supported preclusion if they had been proved. It is enough that the District Court reasonably thought they had not.

         The State's back-up argument about our standard of review also falls short. The rule that we review a trial court's factual findings for clear error contains no exception for findings that diverge from those made in another court. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 52(a)(6) ("Findings of fact . . . must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous"); see also Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352, 369 (1991) (plurality opinion) (applying the same standard to a state court's findings). Whatever findings are under review receive the benefit of deference, without regard to whether a court in a separate suit has seen the matter differently. So here, we must ask not which court considering Districts 1 and 12 had the better view of the facts, but simply whether the court below's view is clearly wrong. That does not mean the state court's decision is wholly irrelevant: It is common sense that, all else equal, a finding is more likely to be plainly wrong if some judges disagree with it. Cf. Glossip v. Gross, 576 U.S., (2015) (slip op., at 17) (noting that we are even less likely to disturb a factual determination when "multiple trial courts have reached the same finding"). But the very premise of clear error review is that there are often "two permissible"- because two "plausible"-"views of the evidence." Anderson, 470 U.S., at 574; see supra, at 4. Even assuming the state court's findings capture one such view, the District Court's assessment may yet represent another. And the permissibility of the District Court's account is the only question before us.

         III

         With that out of the way, we turn to the merits of this case, beginning (appropriately enough) with District 1. As noted above, the court below found that race furnished the predominant rationale for that district's redesign. See supra, at 6-7. And it held that the State's interest in complying with the VRA could not justify that consideration of race. See supra, at 7. We uphold both conclusions.

         A

         Uncontested evidence in the record shows that the State's mapmakers, in considering District 1, purposefully established a racial target: African-Americans should make up no less than a majority of the voting-age population. See 159 F.Supp.3d, at 611-614. Senator Rucho and Representative Lewis were not coy in expressing that goal. They repeatedly told their colleagues that District 1 had to be majority-minority, so as to comply with the VRA. During a Senate debate, for example, Rucho explained that District 1 "must include a sufficient number of African-Americans" to make it "a majority black district." App. 689-690. Similarly, Lewis informed the House and Senate redistricting committees that the district must have "a majority black voting age population." Id., at 610. And that objective was communicated in no uncertain terms to the legislators' consultant. Dr. Hofeller testified multiple times at trial that Rucho and Lewis instructed him "to draw [District 1] with a [BVAP] in excess of 50 percent." 159 F.Supp.3d, at 613; see, e.g., ibid. ("Once again, my instructions [were] that the district had to be drawn at above 50 percent").

         Hofeller followed those directions to the letter, such that the 50%-plus racial target "had a direct and significant impact" on District l's configuration. Alabama, 575 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 17). In particular, Hofeller moved the district's borders to encompass the heavily black parts of Durham (and only those parts), thus taking in tens of thousands of additional African-American voters. That change and similar ones, made (in his words) to ensure that the district's racial composition would "add[] up correctly, " deviated from the districting practices he otherwise would have followed. App. 2802. Hofeller candidly admitted that point: For example, he testified, he sometimes could not respect county or precinct lines as he wished because "the more important thing" was to create a majority-minority district. Id., at 2807; see id., at 2809. The result is a district with stark racial borders: Within the same counties, the portions that fall inside District 1 have black populations two to three times larger than the portions placed in neighboring districts. See Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 19; cf. Alabama, 575 U.S., at ___ - ___ (slip op., at 17-18) (relying on similar evidence to find racial predominance).

         Faced with this body of evidence-showing an announced racial target that subordinated other districting criteria and produced boundaries amplifying divisions between blacks and whites-the District Court did not clearly err in finding that race predominated in drawing District 1. Indeed, as all three judges recognized, the court could hardly have concluded anything but. See 159 F.Supp.3d, at 611 (calling District 1 a "textbook example" of race-based districting).[3]

         B

         The more substantial question is whether District 1 can survive the strict scrutiny applied to racial gerrymanders. As noted earlier, we have long assumed that complying with the VRA is a compelling interest. See supra, at 2. And we have held that race-based districting is narrowly tailored to that objective if a State had "good reasons" for thinking that the Act demanded such steps. See supra, at 3. North Carolina argues that District 1 passes muster under that standard: The General Assembly (so says the State) had "good reasons to believe it needed to draw [District 1] as a majority-minority district to avoid Section 2 liability" for vote dilution. Brief for Appellants 52. We now turn to that defense.

         This Court identified, in Thornburg v. Gingles, three threshold conditions for proving vote dilution under §2 of the VRA. See 478 U.S., at 50-51. First, a "minority group" must be "sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority" in some reasonably configured legislative district. Id., at 50. Second, the minority group must be "politically cohesive." Id., at 51. And third, a district's white majority must "vote[] sufficiently as a bloc" to usually "defeat the minority's preferred candidate." Ibid. Those three showings, we have explained, are needed to establish that "the minority [group] has the potential to elect a representative of its own choice" in a possible district, but that racially polarized voting prevents it from doing so in the district as actually drawn because it is "submerg[ed] in a larger white voting population." Growe v. Emison, 507 U.S. 25, 40 (1993). If a State has good reason to think that all the "Gingles preconditions" are met, then so too it has good reason to believe that §2 requires drawing a majority-minority district. See Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952, 978 (1996) (plurality opinion). But if not, then not.

         Here, electoral history provided no evidence that a §2 plaintiff could demonstrate the third Gingles prerequisite-effective white bloc-voting.[4] For most of the twenty years prior to the new plan's adoption, African-Americans had made up less than a majority of District l's voters; the district's BVAP usually hovered between 46% and 48%. See 159 F.Supp.3d, at 606; App. 312. Yet throughout those two decades, as the District Court noted, District 1 was "an extraordinarily safe district for African-American preferred candidates." 159 F.Supp.3d, at 626. In the closest election during that period, African-Americans' candidate of choice received 59% of the total vote; in other years, the share of the vote garnered by those candidates rose to as much as 70%. See supra, at 5. Those victories (indeed, landslides) occurred because the district's white population did not "vote[] sufficiently as a bloc" to thwart black voters' preference, Gingles, 478 U.S., at 51; rather, a meaningful number of white voters joined a politically cohesive black community to elect that group's favored candidate. In the lingo of voting law, District 1 functioned, election year in and election year out, as a "crossover" district, in which members of the majority help a "large enough" minority to elect its candidate of choice. Bartlett v. Strickland, 556 U.S. 1, 13 (2009) (plurality opinion). When voters act in that way, "[i]t is difficult to see how the majority-bloc-voting requirement could be met"-and hence how §2 liability could be established. Id., at 16. So experience gave the State no reason to think that the VRA required it to ramp up District l's BVAP.

         The State counters that, in this context, past performance is no guarantee of future results. See Brief for Appellants 57-58; Reply Brief 19-20. Recall here that the State had to redraw its whole congressional map following the 2010 census. See supra, at 5. And in particular, the State had to add nearly 100, 000 new people to District 1 to meet the one-person-one-vote standard. See supra, at 6. That meant about 13% of the voters in the new district would never have voted there before. See App. 2690; Reply Brief 20. So, North Carolina contends, the question facing the state mapmakers was not whether the then-existing District 1 violated §2. Rather, the question was whether the future District 1 would do so if drawn without regard to race. And that issue, the State claims, could not be resolved by "focusing myopically on past elections." Id., at 19.

         But that reasoning, taken alone, cannot justify North Carolina's race-based redesign of District 1. True enough, a legislature undertaking a re districting must assess whether the new districts it contemplates (not the old ones it sheds) conform to the VRA's requirements. And true too, an inescapable influx of additional voters into a district may suggest the possibility that its former track record of compliance can continue only if the legislature intentionally adjusts its racial composition. Still, North Carolina too far downplays the significance of a longtime pattern of white crossover voting in the area that would form the core of the redrawn District 1. See Gingles, 478 U.S., at 57 (noting that longtime voting patterns are highly probative of racial polarization). And even more important, North Carolina can point to no meaningful legislative inquiry into what it now rightly identifies as the key issue: whether a new, enlarged District 1, created without a focus on race but however else the State would choose, could lead to §2 liability. The prospect of a significant population increase in a district only raises-it does not answer-the question whether §2 requires deliberate measures to augment the district's BVAP. (Indeed, such population growth could cut in either direction, depending on who comes into the district.) To have a strong basis in evidence to conclude that §2 demands such race-based steps, the State must carefully evaluate whether a plaintiff could establish the Gingles preconditions-including effective white bloc-voting-in a new district created without those measures. We see nothing in the legislative record that fits that description.[5]

         And that absence is no accident: Rucho and Lewis proceeded under a wholly different theory-arising not from Gingles but from Bartlett v. Strickland-of what §2 demanded in drawing District 1. Strickland involved a geographic area in which African-Americans could not form a majority of a reasonably compact district. See 556 U.S., at 8 (plurality opinion). The African-American community, however, was sizable enough to enable the formation of a crossover district, in which a substantial bloc of black voters, if receiving help from some white ones, could elect the candidates of their choice. See supra, at 14. A plurality of this Court, invoking the first Gingles precondition, held that §2 did not require creating that district: When a minority group is not sufficiently large to make up a majority in a reasonably shaped district, §2 simply does not apply. See 556 U.S., at 18-20. Over and over in the legislative record, Rucho and Lewis cited Strickland as mandating a 50%-plus BVAP in District 1. See App. 355-356, 363-364, 472-474, 609-610, 619, 1044. They apparently reasoned that if, as Strickland held, §2 does not require crossover districts (for groups insufficiently large under Gingles), then §2 also cannot be satisfied by crossover districts (for groups in fact meeting Gingles size condition). In effect, they concluded, whenever a legislature can draw a majority-minority district, it must do so- even if a crossover district would also allow the minority group to elect its favored candidates. See 1 Tr. 21-22 (counsel's explanation that "the [S]tate interpreted" Strickland to say that, in order to protect African-Americans' electoral strength and thus avoid §2 liability, the BVAP in District 1 "need[ed] to be above 50 percent").

         That idea, though, is at war with our §2 jurisprudence- Strickland included. Under the State's view, the third Gingles condition is no condition at all, because even in the absence of effective white bloc-voting, a §2 claim could succeed in a district (like the old District 1) with an under-50% BVAP. But this Court has made clear that unless each of the three Gingles prerequisites is established, "there neither has been a wrong nor can be a remedy." Growe, 507 U.S., at 41. And Strickland, far from supporting North Carolina's view, underscored the necessity of demonstrating effective white bloc-voting to prevail in a §2 vote-dilution suit. The plurality explained that "[i]n areas with substantial crossover voting, " §2 plaintiffs would not "be able to establish the third Gingles precondition" and so "majority-minority districts would not be required." 556 U.S., at 24; see also ibid, (noting that States can "defend against alleged §2 violations by pointing to crossover voting patterns and to effective crossover districts"). Thus, North Carolina's belief that it was compelled to redraw District 1 (a successful crossover district) as a majority-minority district rested not on a "strong basis in evidence, " but instead on a pure error of law. Alabama, 575 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 22).

         In sum: Although States enjoy leeway to take race-based actions reasonably judged necessary under a proper interpretation of the VRA, that latitude cannot rescue District 1. We by no means "insist that a state legislature, when redistricting, determine precisely what percent minority population [§2 of the VRA] demands." Ibid. But neither will we approve a racial gerrymander whose necessity is supported by no evidence and whose raison d'etre is a legal mistake. Accordingly, we uphold the District Court's conclusion that North Carolina's use of race as the predominant factor in designing District 1 does not withstand strict scrutiny.

         IV

         We now look west to District 12, making its fifth(!) appearance before this Court. This time, the district's legality turns, and turns solely, on which of two possible reasons predominantly explains its most recent reconfiguration. The plaintiffs contended at trial that the General Assembly chose voters for District 12, as for District 1, because of their race; more particularly, they urged that the Assembly intentionally increased District 12's BVAP in the name of ensuring preclearance under the VRAs §5. But North Carolina declined to mount any defense (similar to the one we have just considered for District 1) that §5's requirements in fact justified race-based changes to District 12-perhaps because §5 could not reasonably be understood to have done so, see n. 10, infra. Instead, the State altogether denied that racial considerations accounted for (or, indeed, played the slightest role in) District 12's redesign. According to the State's version of events, Senator Rucho, Representative Lewis, and Dr. Hofeller moved voters in and out of the district as part of a "strictly" political gerrymander, without regard to race. 6 Record 1011. The mapmakers drew their lines, in other words, to "pack" District 12 with Democrats, not African-Americans. After hearing evidence supporting both parties' accounts, the District Court accepted the plaintiffs'.[6]

         Getting to the bottom of a dispute like this one poses special challenges for a trial court. In the more usual case alleging a racial gerrymander-where no one has raised a partisanship defense-the court can make real headway by exploring the challenged district's conformity to traditional districting principles, such as compactness and respect for county lines. In Shaw II, for example, this Court emphasized the "highly irregular" shape of then-District 12 in concluding that race predominated in its design. 517 U.S., at 905 (internal quotation marks omitted). But such evidence loses much of its value when the State asserts partisanship as a defense, because a bizarre shape-as of the new District 12-can arise from a "political motivation" as well as a racial one. Cromartie I, 526 U.S., at 547, n. 3. And crucially, political and racial reasons are capable of yielding similar oddities in a district's boundaries. That is because, of course, "racial identification is highly correlated with political affiliation." Cromartie II, 532 U.S., at 243. As a result of those redisricting realities, a trial court has a formidable task: It must make "a sensitive inquiry" into all "circumstantial and direct evidence of intent" to assess whether the plaintiffs have managed to disentangle race from politics and prove that the former drove a district's lines. Cromartie I, 526 U.S., at 546 (internal quotation marks omitted).[7]

         Our job is different-and generally easier. As described earlier, we review a district court's finding as to racial predominance only for clear error, except when the court made a legal mistake. See supra, at 3-4. Under that standard of review, we affirm the court's finding so long as it is "plausible"; we reverse only when "left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Anderson, 470 U.S., at 573-574; see supra, at 4. And in deciding which side of that line to come down on, we give singular deference to a trial court's judgments about the credibility of witnesses. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 52(a)(6). That is proper, we have explained, because the various cues that "bear so heavily on the listener's understanding of and belief in what is said" are lost on an appellate court later sifting through a paper record. Anderson, 470 U.S., at575.[8]

         In light of those principles, we uphold the District Court's finding of racial predominance respecting District 12. The evidence offered at trial, including live witness testimony subject to credibility determinations, adequately supports the conclusion that race, not politics, accounted for the district's reconfiguration. And no error of law infected that judgment: Contrary to North Carolina's view, the District Court had no call to dismiss this challenge just because the plaintiffs did not proffer an alternative design for District 12 as circumstantial evidence of the legislature's intent.

         A

         Begin with some facts and figures, showing how the redistricting of District 12 affected its racial composition. As explained above, District 12 (unlike District 1) was approximately the right size as it was: North Carolina did not-indeed, could not-much change its total population. See supra, at 6. But by further slimming the district and adding a couple of knobs to its snakelike body (including in Guilford County), the General Assembly incorporated tens of thousands of new voters and pushed out tens of thousands of old ones. And those changes followed racial lines: To be specific, the new District 12 had 35, 000 more African-Americans of voting age and 50, 000 fewer whites of that age. (The difference was made up of voters from other racial categories.) See ibid. Those voter exchanges produced a sizable jump in the district's BVAP, from 43.8% to 50.7%. See ibid. The Assembly thus turned District 12 (as it did District 1, see supra, at 10-11) into a majority-minority district.

         As the plaintiffs pointed out at trial, Rucho and Lewis had publicly stated that racial considerations lay behind District 12's augmented BVAP. In a release issued along with their draft districting plan, the two legislators ascribed that change to the need to achieve preclearance of the plan under §5 of the VRA. See App. 358. At that time, §5 covered Guilford County and thus prohibited any "retrogression in the [electoral] position of racial minorities" there. Beer, 425 U.S., at 141; see 31 Fed. Reg. 5081 (1966). And part of Guilford County lay within District 12, which meant that the Department of Justice would closely scrutinize that district's new lines. In light of those facts, Rucho and Lewis wrote: "Because of the presence of Guilford County in the Twelfth District, we have drawn our proposed Twelfth District at a [BVAP] level that is above the percentage of [BVAP] found in the current Twelfth District." App. 358. According to the two legislators, that race-based "measure w[ould] ensure preclearance of the plan." ...


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