MARGARET DICKSON, ALICIA CHISOLM, ETHEL CLARK, MATTHEW A. McLEAN, MELISSA LEE ROLLIZO, C. DAVID GANTT, VALERIA TRUITT, ALICE GRAHAM UNDERHILL, ARMIN JANCIS, REBECCA JUDGE, ZETTIE WILLIAMS, TRACEY BURNS-VANN, LAWRENCE CAMPBELL, ROBINSON O. EVERETT, JR., LINDA GARROU, HAYES McNEILL, JIM SHAW, SIDNEY E. DUNSTON, ALMA ADAMS, R. STEVE BOWDEN, JASON EDWARD COLEY, KARL BERTRAND FIELDS, PAMLYN STUBBS, DON VAUGHAN, BOB ETHERIDGE, GEORGE GRAHAM, JR., THOMAS M. CHUMLEY, AISHA DEW, GENEAL GREGORY, VILMA LEAKE, RODNEY W. MOORE, BRENDA MARTIN STEVENSON, JANE WHITLEY, I.T. (" TIM" ) VALENTINE, LOIS WATKINS, RICHARD JOYNER, MELVIN C. McLAWHORN, RANDALL S. JONES, BOBBY CHARLES TOWNSEND, ALBERT KIRBY, TERRENCE WILLIAMS, NORMAN C. CAMP, MARY F. POOLE, STEPHEN T. SMITH, PHILIP A. BADDOUR, and DOUGLAS A. WILSON
ROBERT RUCHO, in his official capacity only as the Chairman of the North Carolina Senate Redistricting Committee; DAVID LEWIS, in his official capacity only as the Chairman of the North Carolina House of Representatives Redistricting Committee; NELSON DOLLAR, in his official capacity only as the Co-Chairman of the North Carolina House of Representatives Redistricting Committee; JERRY DOCKHAM, in his official capacity only as the Co-Chairman of the North Carolina House of Representatives Redistricting Committee; PHILIP E. BERGER, in his official capacity only as the President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate; THOM TILLIS, in his official capacity only as the Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives; THE STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS; and THE STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA; NORTH CAROLINA STATE CONFERENCE OF BRANCHES OF THE NAACP, LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS OF NORTH CAROLINA, DEMOCRACY NORTH CAROLINA, NORTH CAROLINA A. PHILIP RANDOLPH INSTITUTE, REVA McNAIR, MATTHEW DAVIS, TRESSIE STANTON, ANNE WILSON, SHARON HIGHTOWER, KAY BRANDON, GOLDIE WELLS, GRAY NEWMAN, YVONNE STAFFORD, ROBERT DAWKINS, SARA STOHLER, HUGH STOHLER, OCTAVIA RAINEY, CHARLES HODGE, MARSHALL HARDY, MARTHA GARDENHIGHT, BEN TAYLOR, KEITH RIVERS, ROMALLUS O. MURPHY, CARL WHITE, ROSA BRODIE, HERMAN LEWIS, CLARENCE ALBERT, EVESTER BAILEY, ALBERT BROWN, BENJAMIN LANIER, GILBERT VAUGHN, AVIE LESTER, THEODORE MUCHITENI, WILLIAM HOBBS, JIMMIE RAY HAWKINS, HORACE P. BULLOCK, ROBERTA WADDLE, CHRISTINA DAVIS-McCOY, JAMES OLIVER WILLIAMS, MARGARET SPEED, LARRY LAVERNE BROOKS, CAROLYN S. ALLEN, WALTER ROGERS, SR., SHAWN MEACHEM, MARY GREEN BONAPARTE, SAMUEL LOVE, COURTNEY PATTERSON, WILLIE O. SINCLAIR, CARDES HENRY BROWN, JR., and JANE STEPHENS
THE STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA; THE NORTH CAROLINA STATE BOARD OF ELECTIONS; THOM TILLIS, in his official capacity as Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives; and PHILIP E. BERGER, in his official capacity as President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate
Heard, January 6, 2014
As Corrected February 5, 2015.
Counsel Amended January 7, 2015.
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Wake County. No. 11CVS16896, 11CVS1690.
Poyner Spruill LLP, Raleigh, NC, by Edwin M. Speas, Jr.Mr., Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, John W. O'HaleMr., Guardian ad Litem and Ms. Caroline P. Mackie, Attorney at Law; and Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Durham, NC, by Anita S. EarlsMs., Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law and Allison J. RiggsMs., Attorney at Law, for Plaintiff-Appellant - Dickson, Margaret, et al.
Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., Raleigh, NC, by Thomas A. FarrMr., Attorney at Law and Phillip J. StrachMr., Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, for Defendant-Appellee - Rucho, Robert et al.
Mr. Alexander McC. Peters, Primary Attorney, Special Deputy Attorney General, Ms. Susan K. Nichols, Special Deputy Attorney General, N.C. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Raleigh, NC, for Defendant-Appellee - State of North Carolina, et al.
FERGUSON STEIN CHAMBERS GRESHAM & SUMTER, Chapel Hill, NC, by Mr. Adam Stein, Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law; Mr. Victor Goode, Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, NAACP, Baltimore, MD, for Plaintiff-Appellant - North Carolina State Conference Of Branches Of The NAACP, et al.
THE BUSSIAN LAW FIRM, Raleigh, NC, by Mr. John A. Bussian, Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law for NC Press Association, Inc., et al, Amicus.
BROOKS, PIERCE, MCLENDON, HUMPHREY & LEONARD, LLP, Raleigh, NC, by Mr. Mark J. Prak, Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, Mr. Charles E. Coble, Dorrian H. Horsey, Attorneys at Law, for N.C. Association of Broadcasters, Inc., Amicus.
STEVENS MARTIN VAUGHN & TADYCH, PLLC, Raleigh, NC, by Mr. Hugh Stevens, Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, for N.C. Open Government Coalition, Inc, Amicus.
David Lambeth, Primary Attorney, Pro se, Amicus, Chapel Hill, NC.
Jenner & Block LLP, Washington, DC, by Paul M. SmithMr., Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, Pro Hac Vice, Jessica Ring AmunsonMs., Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, Pro Hac Vice and Michelle R. SingerMs., Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, Pro Hac Vice; and Smith Moore Leatherwood LLP, Raleigh, NC, by Mark Anderson FinkelsteinMr. and Matthew Nis LeerbergMr., Primary Attorneys, Attorneys at Law for Election Law Professors, Amicus.
Mr. H. Jefferson Powell, Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, DUKE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW, Durham, NC, for North Carolina Law Professors, Amicus.
Terry Smith, Primary Attorney, Atotrney at Law, Pro Hac Vice, Chicago, IL; and Mr. Kareem Crayton, Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, Pro Hac Vice, Chapel Hill, NC ; and Ferguson, Chambers & Sumter, P.A., Charlotte, NC, by Ms. Geraldine Sumter, Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law for North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus, Amicus.
EDMUNDS, Justice. Justice HUNTER did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case. Justice BEASLEY concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice HUDSON joins in this opinion.
[367 N.C. 545] Appeal pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 120-2.5 from orders entered on 6 February 2012 and 8 July 2013 by a three-judge panel of the Superior Court, Wake County appointed by the Chief Justice under N.C.G.S. § 1-267.1. Heard in the Supreme Court on 6 January 2014.
Following the 2010 Decennial Census, the General Assembly of North Carolina enacted redistricting plans for the North Carolina Senate and House of Representatives, and for the North Carolina districts [367 N.C. 546] for the United States House of Representatives. Plaintiffs challenge the legality of these plans, arguing that they violate the constitutions of the United States and of North Carolina, controlling federal statutes, and applicable decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Supreme Court of North Carolina. The three-judge panel reviewing the plans unanimously concluded that the General Assembly applied traditional and permissible redistricting principles to achieve partisan advantage and that no constitutional violations resulted. After a careful and exhaustive review of the record in this case and the pertinent law, we conclude that, as to the twenty-six districts deliberately drawn to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, the trial court erred when it applied strict scrutiny prematurely. However, plaintiffs were not prejudiced because even if strict scrutiny is not appropriate, these districts survive this most demanding level of review. As to the remaining challenged districts, we affirm the ruling of the trial court.
I. Procedural Background
The Constitution of North Carolina requires decennial redistricting of the North Carolina Senate and North Carolina House of Representatives, subject to several specific requirements. The General Assembly is directed to revise the districts and apportion
Representatives and Senators among those districts. N.C. Const. art. II, § § 3, 5. Similarly, consistent with the requirements of the Constitution of the United States, the General Assembly establishes North Carolina's districts for the United States House of Representatives after every decennial census. U.S. Const. art. I, § § 2, 4; 2 U.S.C. § § 2a, 2c (2012).
Following the census conducted with a date of 1 April 2010, leaders of the North Carolina House of Representatives and the North Carolina Senate independently appointed redistricting committees. Each committee was responsible for recommending a plan applicable to its own chamber, while the two committees jointly were charged with preparing a redistricting plan for the United States House of Representatives North Carolina districts. These committees sought information and suggestions from numerous sources, including the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus and the North Carolina delegation to the United States Congress. In addition, these committees solicited input from various constituencies; invited public comment and conducted public hearings in multiple counties, including twenty-four of the forty counties then covered by section 5 of the Voting [367 N.C. 547] Rights Act of 1965 (hereinafter " the Voting Rights Act" or " VRA" );  heard both lay and expert testimony regarding such matters as racially polarized voting; solicited and received advice from the University of North Carolina School of Government; commissioned reports from independent experts to fill gaps in the evidence; and considered written submissions.
The General Assembly convened on 25 July 2011 to deliberate the redistricting plans drawn by the House and Senate committees. That same day, alternative maps were submitted by leaders of the Democratic Party and by the Legislative Black Caucus. On 27 July, the General Assembly ratified the 2011 North Carolina Senate redistricting plan and the 2011 plan for the federal House of Representatives districts. On 28 July, the General Assembly ratified the 2011 North Carolina House of Representatives redistricting plan. On September 2011, the three plans were submitted to the United States Department of Justice for preclearance under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and preclearance was received on 1 November 2011.2 Also on 2 September, a suit seeking preclearance was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. That action was dismissed on 8 November 2011.
On 3 November 2011, Margaret Dickson and forty-five other registered voters filed a complaint, seeking to have the three redistricting plans declared invalid on both constitutional and statutory grounds. These plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on 12 December 2011. On 4 November 2011, the North Carolina State Conference of Branches of the NAACP joined by three organizations and forty-six individuals filed a complaint seeking similar relief. These plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on 9 December 2011. Following the filing of the original complaints, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina appointed a panel of three superior court judges to hear these actions, pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 1-267.1. On 19 December 2011, the three-judge panel (" the trial court" ) consolidated both cases for all purposes.
On 6 February 2012, the trial court allowed in part and denied in part defendants' motion to dismiss. Plaintiffs filed a motion for partial [367 N.C. 548] summary judgment on 5 October 2012, and defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on 10 December 2012. The trial court heard arguments on these motions on 25 and 26 February 2013.
While a ruling on the motions for summary judgment was pending, the trial court issued an order determining that genuine issues of material fact existed as to two issues that could not be resolved by summary judgment. Accordingly, the court ordered a trial on these two issues, which it identified as:
A. Assuming application of a strict scrutiny standard and, in considering whether the Enacted Plans were narrowly tailored, was each challenged Voting Rights Act (" VRA" ) district drawn in a place where a remedy or potential remedy for racially polarized voting was reasonable for purposes of preclearance or protection of the State from vote dilution claims under the Constitution or under § 2 of the VRA?
B. For six specific districts (Senate Districts 31 and 32, House Districts 51 and 54 and Congressional Districts 4 and 12 -- none of which is identified as a VRA district), what was the predominant factor in the drawing of those districts?
The court conducted the trial on 4 and 5 June 2013. On 8 July 2013, the trial court issued its unanimous " Judgment and Memorandum of Decision" denying plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment and entering summary judgment for defendants on all remaining claims. Plaintiffs entered timely notice of appeal pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 120-2.5.
II. Plaintiffs' Federal Claims
We begin by considering plaintiffs' claims brought under federal law. If a redistricting plan does not satisfy federal requirements, it fails even if it is consistent with the law of North Carolina. See U.S. Const. art. VI, § 2; N.C. Const. art. I, § 3. Plaintiffs argued first to the trial court, and now to us, that the redistricting plans violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States because they impermissibly classify individuals based upon their race. In other words, plaintiffs contend that the redistricting plans constitute impermissible racial gerrymandering that has denied them equal protection under the law.
[367 N.C. 549] A. Standards Applicable upon Review
A court considering allegations of racial gerrymandering first must determine the appropriate standard of review. Strict scrutiny, the highest tier of review, applies " when the classification impermissibly interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right or operates to the peculiar disadvantage of a suspect class." White v. Pate, 308 N.C. 759, 766, 304 S.E.2d 199, 204 (1983) (citations omitted). " Race is unquestionably a 'suspect class,'" Phelps v. Phelps, 337 N.C. 344, 353, 446 S.E.2d 17, 23 (1994), and if a court finds that race is the " predominant, overriding factor" behind the General Assembly's plans, the plans must satisfy strict scrutiny to survive, Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900, 920, 115 S.Ct. 2475, 2490, 132 L.Ed.2d 762, 782 (1995). " Under strict scrutiny [review], a challenged governmental action is unconstitutional if the State cannot establish that it is narrowly tailored to advance a compelling governmental interest." Stephenson v. Bartlett, 355 N.C. 354, 377, 562 S.E.2d 377, 393 (2002) (hereinafter " Stephenson I " ) (citation omitted). If, on the other hand, the plans are not predominantly motivated by improper racial considerations, the court defaults to the rational basis test. See Nordlinger v. Hahn, 505 U.S. 1, 10, 112 S.Ct. 2326, 2331, 120 L.Ed.2d 1, 12 (1992) ( " [U]nless a classification warrants some form of heightened review because it jeopardizes exercise of a fundamental right or categorizes on the basis of an inherently suspect characteristic, the Equal Protection Clause requires only that the classification" satisfy rational basis review.). Under rational basis review, " [t]he general rule is that legislation is presumed to be valid and will be sustained if the classification drawn by the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest." City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., Inc., 473 U.S. 432, 440, 105 S.Ct. 3249, 3254, 87 L.Ed.2d 313, 320 (1985) (citations omitted).
A party challenging a redistricting plan has the burden of establishing that race was the predominant motive behind the state legislature's action. Miller, 515 U.S. at 916, 115 S.Ct. at 2488, 132 L.Ed.2d at 779-80. In Miller, the Supreme Court stated that
[t]he plaintiff's burden is to show, either through circumstantial evidence of a district's shape and demographics or more direct evidence going to legislative purpose, that race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature's decision to
place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district. To make this showing, a plaintiff must prove that the legislature subordinated traditional race-neutral districting principles, including but not limited to compactness, contiguity, and respect [367 N.C. 550] for political subdivisions or communities defined by actual shared interests, to racial considerations. Where these or other race-neutral considerations are the basis for redistricting legislation, and are not subordinated to race, a State can " defeat a claim that a district has been gerrymandered on racial lines."
Id. (quoting Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630, 647, 113 S.Ct. 2816, 2827, 125 L.Ed.2d 511, 529 (1993) (hereinafter " Shaw I " )).
As a court considers which standard of review is appropriate, it should be mindful of the Supreme Court's observation that " courts must 'exercise extraordinary caution in adjudicating claims that a State has drawn district lines on the basis of race.'" Easley v. Cromartie, 532 U.S. 234, 242, 121 S.Ct. 1452, 1458, 149 L.Ed.2d 430, 443 (2001) (hereinafter " Cromartie II " ) (quoting Miller, 515 U.S. at 916, 115 S.Ct. at 2488, 132 L.Ed.2d at 779 (emphasis added)). At least three factors lie behind this admonition. First, in light of the interplay detailed below between the Fourteenth Amendment, which virtually forbids consideration of race, and the VRA, which requires consideration of race, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that the existence of legislative consciousness of race while redistricting does not automatically render redistricting plans unconstitutional. Miller, 515 U.S. at 916, 115 S.Ct. at 2488, 132 L.Ed.2d at 779 (" Redistricting legislatures will, for example, almost always be aware of racial demographics; but it does not follow that race predominates in the redistricting process." ); see also Shaw I, 509 U.S. at 646, 113 S.Ct. at 2826, 125 L.Ed.2d at 528 (" [T]he legislature always is aware of race when it draws district lines . . . . That sort of race consciousness does not lead inevitably to impermissible race discrimination." ). Second, the Supreme Court has recognized the importance of States' own traditional districting principles, holding that States can adhere to them without being subject to strict scrutiny so long as those principles are not subordinated to race. Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952, 978, 116 S.Ct. 1941, 1961, 135 L.Ed.2d 248, 269 (1996) (plurality). Finally, the Supreme Court has accepted that some degree of deference is due in light of the difficulties facing state legislatures when reconciling conflicting legal responsibilities. Id. at 1038, 116 S.Ct. at 1991, 135 L.Ed.2d at 308 (Stevens, Ginsburg & Breyer, JJ., dissenting); see also Page v. Va. State Bd. of Elections, No. 3:13cv678, 58 F.Supp.3d 533, 2014 WL 5019686, at *6-7 (E.D. Va. Oct. 7, 2014) (determination by three-judge court in accordance with 52 U.S.C.S. § 10304(a)) (recognizing that redistricting is " possibly 'the most difficult task a legislative body ever undertakes'" (citation omitted)).
[367 N.C. 551] A court's determination of the predominant motive underlying a redistricting plan is factual in nature. Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 549, 119 S.Ct. 1545, 1550, 143 L.Ed.2d 731, 740 (1999) (hereinafter " Cromartie I " (citations omitted)). Factual findings are binding on appeal if not challenged at trial or on appeal, e.g., Koufman v. Koufman, 330 N.C. 93, 97, 408 S.E.2d 729, 731 (1991), or if supported by competent evidence found by the trial judge, e.g., In re Estate of Trogdon, 330 N.C. 143, 147-48, 409 S.E.2d 897, 900 (1991). Conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. E.g., N.C. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co. v. Cully's Motorcross Park, Inc., 366 N.C. 505, 512, 742 S.E.2d 781, 786 (2013) (citation omitted). Here, of the thirty challenged House, Senate, and Congressional districts, the trial court concluded that twenty-six were predominantly motivated by race and thus subject to strict scrutiny review. The trial court concluded that the remaining four challenged districts were not predominantly motivated by race and thus were subject to rational basis review. We consider each group in turn.
B. The VRA Districts
We turn first to the twenty-six districts that the trial court subjected to strict scrutiny. As to these districts, the trial court reached two significant conclusions. First, the court unanimously found that " it is undisputed that the General Assembly intended
to create 26 of the challenged districts to be 'Voting Rights Act districts'" that would include a Total Black Voting Age Population of at least fifty percent. This unchallenged finding of fact is binding on us. Koufman, 330 N.C. at 97, 408 S.E.2d at 731. The trial court then reached a second unanimous conclusion that drawing such districts " necessarily requires the drafters of districts to classify residents by race," that the " shape, location and racial composition of each VRA district was predominantly determined by a racial objective," and that the process of creating such districts resulted in " a racial classification sufficient to trigger the application of strict scrutiny as a matter of law." Although this second determination by the trial court is neither purely factual nor purely legal, we are mindful that federal precedent cited above instructs that the General Assembly's consideration of race to the degree necessary to comply with section 2 does not rise to the level of a " predominant motive" as a matter of course. Accordingly, before reviewing the trial court's application of strict scrutiny, we believe it necessary to review its conclusion as to the General Assembly's predominant motive.
[367 N.C. 552] 1. Predominant Motive
The challenges faced by the General Assembly while redistricting are easy to express but persistently difficult to resolve. The Fourteenth Amendment, by guaranteeing equal protection for all citizens regardless of race, virtually prohibits consideration of race during redistricting. U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. Yet the Voting Rights Act, passed " to help effectuate the Fifteenth Amendment's guarantee that no citizen's right to vote shall 'be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,'" Voinovich v. Quilter, 507 U.S. 146, 152, 113 S.Ct. 1149, 1154-55, 122 L.Ed.2d 500, 510 (1993) (alteration in original) (citations omitted), specifically requires consideration of race. For instance, section 2 " prohibits the imposition of any electoral practice or procedure that 'results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen . . . to vote on account of race or color.'" Id. at 152, 113 S.Ct. at 1155, 122 L.Ed.2d at 510 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1973(a) (alteration in original) (effective 1 September 2014, recodified as 52 U.S.C.S. § 10301(a) (LexisNexis 2014)). At the same time, the General Assembly must ensure that each district complies with federal and state " one-person, one-vote" standards, see N.C. Const. art. II, § § 3(1), 5(1); Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 565-66, 84 S.Ct. 1362, 1383-85, 12 L.Ed.2d 506, 529-30 (1964); Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 207-08, 82 S.Ct. 691, 705, 7 L.Ed.2d 663, 680 (1962), and that, to the greatest extent allowed under federal law, the redistricting plans comply with the Whole County Provision of our state constitution, Stephenson I, 355 N.C. at 382-84, 562 S.E.2d at 395-97. Moreover, the Supreme Court of the United States has acknowledged other legitimate considerations, such as compactness, contiguity, and respect for political subdivisions, see Miller, 515 U.S. at 916, 115 S.Ct. at 2488, 132 L.Ed.2d at 780; Shaw I, 509 U.S. at 646, 113 S.Ct. 2826, 125 L.Ed.2d at 528; Reynolds, 377 U.S. at 578, 84 S.Ct. at 1390, 12 L.Ed.2d at 537; political advantage, see Cromartie I, 526 U.S. at 551, 119 S.Ct. at 1551, 143 L.Ed.2d at 741; and accommodation of incumbents, see Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U.S. 725, 740, 103 S.Ct. 2653, 2663, 77 L.Ed.2d 133, 147 (1983). Thus, " [t]he courts, in assessing the sufficiency of a challenge to a districting plan, must be sensitive to the complex interplay of forces that enter a legislature's redistricting calculus." Miller, 515 U.S. at 915-16, 115 S.Ct. at 2488, 132 L.Ed.2d at 779.
Despite this cat's cradle of factors facing the General Assembly, the trial court found that no factual inquiry was required regarding the General Assembly's predominant motivation in forming the [367 N.C. 553] twenty-six VRA districts beyond the General Assembly's concession that the districts were drafted to be VRA-compliant. In light of the many other considerations potentially in play, we do not believe that this concession established that race ipso facto was the predominant motive driving the General Assembly. Because of the trial court's truncated findings of fact on this issue, we do not know which other factors may have influenced the creation and shape of these twenty-six districts and the extent of any such influence. As a result,
we do not know whether race fairly can be described as the predominant factor in the formation of these districts and whether, in turn, strict scrutiny was the appropriate standard of review. Moreover, in future cases such an assumption--that deliberate creation of VRA-compliant districts equates to race as the predominant motive in creating the districts--may well shortcut the fact-finding process at which trial courts excel, resulting in scanty records on appeal. Accordingly, we hold that the trial court erred in concluding as a matter of law that, just because the twenty-six districts were created to be VRA-compliant, the General Assembly was motivated predominantly by race.
Nonetheless, this error is not fatal and does not invalidate the trial court's order. A similar scenario played out in Cromartie I, in which the courts reviewed the General Assembly's creation of North Carolina's Twelfth Congressional District. 526 U.S. at 543, 119 S.Ct. at 1547, 143 L.Ed.2d at 736. The plaintiffs filed suit in federal court, arguing that the district was the result of an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. Id. at 544-45, 119 S.Ct. at 1548, 143 L.Ed.2d at 737. The three-judge panel of the United States District Court heard arguments pertaining to pending motions, but did not conduct an evidentiary hearing. Id. at 545, 119 S.Ct. at 1548, 143 L.Ed.2d at 737. The panel majority, finding that the General Assembly used race-driven criteria in drawing the district and that doing so violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, granted the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and entered an injunction. Id. On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed, finding that the General Assembly's motivation in drawing district lines is a factual question that, when contested, should not be resolved by summary judgment. 526 U.S. at 549, 553, 119 S.Ct. at 1550, 1552, 143 L.Ed.2d at 740, 742.
The posture of the litigants here is distinguishable because plaintiffs, unlike their counterparts in Cromartie I, lost at summary judgment and are the appealing party. However, even if we were to follow Cromartie I's lead and reverse, plaintiffs could gain nothing on [367 N.C. 554] remand. The basis for our reversal would be that the trial court erred in applying strict scrutiny before making adequate findings of fact. As the trial court noted in its order, if defendants' plans survived strict scrutiny, they would surely survive a less rigorous review. On the other hand, if the trial court on remand found facts and determined once more that strict scrutiny is proper, the panel has already conducted its analysis under that standard. Although the dissent argues that the case should be remanded for additional findings, the record on which it would base those findings--which we have reviewed in detail--would not have changed. As a result, reversing and remanding to the trial court to make findings of fact and conclusions of law would achieve nothing but delay. See e.g., N.L.R.B. v. Wyman-Gordon Co., 394 U.S. 759, 766 n.6, 89 S.Ct. 1426, 1430 n.6, 22 L.Ed.2d 709, 715 n.6 (1969) (plurality) (stating that, when reviewing an agency decision that was based upon an incorrect standard, " it would be useless to remand" because " [t]here is not the slightest uncertainty" that the outcome would remain unchanged). Accordingly, as we review the voluminous record and the trial court's exhaustive analysis, we will proceed on the presumption that strict scrutiny is appropriate and apply that standard as we review the trial court's analysis. If these plans survive strict scrutiny, they survive rational basis review.
2. Compelling Governmental Interest
We begin this analysis by considering the factors that defendants contend constitute a " compelling governmental interest." See Stephenson I, 355 N.C. at 377, 562 S.E.2d at 393 (citation omitted). Defendants argue that the General Assembly drafted the twenty-six districts both to avoid liability under section 2 of the VRA and to obtain preclearance under section 5 of the VRA by avoiding retrogression, which has been defined as " a change in voting procedures which would place the members of a racial or language minority group in a less favorable position than they had occupied before the change with respect to the opportunity to vote effectively." Id. at 363-64, 562 S.E.2d at 385 (citations omitted). Defendants' brief
acknowledges that three principles guided the General Assembly: (1) Compliance with the Whole County Provision of the Constitution of North Carolina, as set out in Stephenson I and Stephenson v. Bartlett, 357 N.C. 301, 582 S.E.2d 247 (2003) (hereinafter " Stephenson II " ); (2) Where possible, establishment of VRA districts having a Total Black Voting Age Population above fifty percent, in accord with Pender County v. Bartlett, 361 N.C. 491, 649 S.E.2d 364 (2007) (hereinafter " Pender County " ), aff'd sub nom. Bartlett v. Strickland, 556 U.S. 1, [367 N.C. 555] 129 S.Ct. 1231, 173 L.Ed.2d 173 (2009) (hereinafter " Strickland " ) (plurality); and (3) Exploration of " the possibility of establishing a sufficient number of VRA legislative districts to provide African American voters with rough proportionality in the number of VRA districts in which they have a reasonable opportunity to elect their candidates of choice."
Although the Supreme Court of the United States has never held outright that compliance with section 2 or section 5 can be a compelling state interest, the Court has issued opinions that expressly assumed as much. To be specific, the Supreme Court in Shaw v. Hunt assumed arguendo that compliance with section 2 could be a compelling state interest, 517 U.S. 899, 915, 116 S.Ct. 1894, 1905, 135 L.Ed.2d 207, 225 (1996) (hereinafter " Shaw II " ), and adopted a similar approach in Miller, where the issue was the State's desire to comply with section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 515 U.S. at 921, 115 S.Ct. at 2490-91, 132 L.Ed.2d at 783. In addition, the Supreme Court has observed that " deference is due to [States'] reasonable fears of, and to their reasonable efforts to avoid, § 2 liability." Vera, 517 U.S. at 978, 116 S.Ct. at 1961, 135 L.Ed.2d at 269 (plurality). The trial court here, footnoting several federal cases addressing the issue, stated that " [i]n general, compliance with the Voting Rights Act can be a compelling governmental interest." Faced squarely with the issue, we agree with the trial court. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires equal treatment regardless of race, while the Voting Rights Act requires consideration of race. Because the Constitution of the United States trumps any federal statute, a State's efforts to comply with the Voting Rights Act creates tension with the Fourteenth Amendment. Any violation of the latter triggers strict scrutiny, mandating that the State demonstrate a compelling interest. Because the Supreme Court of the United States and the United States Congress have indicated without ambiguity that they expect States to comply with the Voting Rights Act, state laws passed for the purpose of complying with the Act must be capable of surviving strict scrutiny, indicating that such compliance is a compelling state interest. This analysis applies equally to a State's efforts to comply with sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
[367 N.C. 556] Moreover, the General Assembly's desire to comply with the Voting Rights Act is justifiable for other reasons. Holding elections is a core State function, fundamental in a democracy. Establishing voting districts is an essential component of holding elections. In doing so, a State is subject to federal mandates in addition to those found in the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment, such as the " one-person, one-vote" requirement. Stephenson I, 355 N.C. at 363-64, 383, 562 S.E.2d at 384-85, 397. A determination that the State does not have a compelling interest in complying with federal mandates would invite litigation by those claiming that the State could never satisfy the requirements of strict scrutiny, undermining the General Assembly's efforts to create stable districts between censuses and citizen expectations that existing election districts are valid. On a level no less practical, we also assume that North Carolina, and all States for that matter, would prefer to avoid the expense and delay resulting from litigation. Accordingly, we hold that compliance with sections 2 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act may be a compelling state interest.
We next consider whether compliance with either section 2 or section 5 constitutes a compelling state interest under the facts presented here. Those goals may reach the level of a compelling state interest if two conditions are satisfied. First, the General Assembly must have identified past or present discrimination with some specificity before it could turn to race-conscious relief. Shaw II, 517 U.S. at 909, 116 S.Ct. at 1902, 135 L.Ed.2d at 221 (citing City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469, 504, 109 S.Ct. 706, 727, 102 L.Ed.2d 854, 889 (1989)). Second, before acting, the General Assembly must also have " had 'a strong basis in evidence'" on which to premise a conclusion that the race-based remedial action was necessary. Id. at 910, 116 S.Ct. at 1903, 135 L.Ed.2d at 222 (quoting Wygant v. Jackson Bd. of Educ., 476 U.S. 267, 277, 106 S.Ct. 1842, 1849, 90 L.Ed.2d 260, 271 (1986) (plurality)).
a. Compelling Interest Under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act
Before we turn our attention to consideration of individual districts, we consider the application of section 2 of the VRA in the instant case. " The essence of a § 2 claim is that a certain electoral law, practice, or structure interacts with social and historical conditions to cause an inequality in the opportunities enjoyed by black and white voters to elect their preferred representatives." Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 47, 106 S.Ct. 2752, 2764, 92 L.Ed.2d 25, 44 (1986); see 52 U.S.C.S. § § 10301-10702 (LexisNexis 2014). The question of voting discrimination vel non, including vote dilution, is determined [367 N.C. 557] by the totality of the circumstances. Gingles, 478 U.S. at 43-46, 106 S.Ct. at 2762-64, 92 L.Ed.2d at 42-44 (discussing section 2(b) of the VRA, now codified at 52 U.S.C.S. § 10301(b)). However, under Gingles, a reviewing court does not reach the totality of circumstances test unless the challenging party is able to establish three preconditions. Id. at 50-51, 106 S.Ct. at 2766-67, 92 L.Ed.2d at 46-47. First, a " minority group must be able to demonstrate that it is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district." Id. at 50, 106 S.Ct. at 2766, 92 L.Ed.2d at 46. Second, the minority group must " show that it is politically cohesive." Id. at 51, 106 S.Ct. at 2766, 92 L.Ed.2d at 47. Finally, the minority group must " be able to demonstrate that the majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it . . . usually to defeat the minority's preferred candidate." Id. at 51, 106 S.Ct. at 2766-67, 92 L.Ed.2d at 47. Although Gingles dealt with multi-member districts, the same preconditions must be met when a claim of vote dilution is made regarding a single-member district. Growe v. Emison, 507 U.S. 25, 40-41, 113 S.Ct. 1075, 1084, 122 L.Ed.2d 388, 403-04 (1993); see also Johnson v. De Grandy, 512 U.S. 997, 1006-07, 114 S.Ct. 2647, 2654-55, 129 L.Ed.2d 775, 788 (1994).
Unlike cases such as Gingles, in which minority groups use section 2 as a sword to challenge districting legislation, here we are considering the General Assembly's use of section 2 as a shield. Defendants argue that, because the Gingles test considers race, the State has a compelling interest in preemptively factoring race into its redistricting process to ensure that its plans would survive a legal challenge brought under section 2. To establish that this state interest is legitimate, defendants must show a strong basis in evidence that the possibility of a section 2 violation existed at the time of the redistricting. See Shaw II, 517 U.S. at 910, 916, 116 S.Ct. at 1903, 1905-06, 135 L.Ed.2d at 222, 225-26. However, because this inquiry addresses only the possibility of a section 2 violation, and because a totality of the circumstances inquiry is by its nature fact-specific, defendants' evidence need only address " the three Gingles preconditions" to establish a compelling governmental interest. See Vera, 517 U.S. at 978, 116 S.Ct. at 1961, 135 L.Ed.2d at 269 (citing Growe, 507 U.S. at 40, 113 S.Ct. at 1084, 122 L.Ed.2d at 403-04).
Thus, to establish a compelling interest in complying with section 2 when the redistricting plans were developed, the legislature at that time must have had a strong basis in evidence that the Total Black Voting Age Population in a geographically compact area was fifty percent [367 N.C. 558] plus one of the area's voting ...