Connecting state and local government leaders
The case concerns an Alabama statute that pre-empted a local minimum wage ordinance in Birmingham.
Six Republican state attorneys general are urging a federal appeals court to kibosh a lawsuit that charges an Alabama law that prevents localities in the state from setting their own minimum wage is discriminatory against African Americans.
The origins of the case can be traced back to the spring of 2015, when the City Council in Birmingham, a city where the majority of residents are black, passed a nonbinding resolution calling for state lawmakers to raise the state’s pay floor to $10 per hour.
At that time, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 was in effect across the state.
State lawmakers didn’t take action on the issue, and during the summer of 2015, the city enacted an ordinance to raise the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 by July of 2017.
The state legislature followed up with a measure that would void the city’s law and establish state control over minimum wage policy. It passed without the support of any black lawmakers in both the House and Senate and was signed into law by then-Gov. Robert Bentley.
As that state-level effort unfolded, the city enacted an ordinance to speed up its minimum wage hike, putting it into effect by February of 2016, but it was invalidated by the state law. And today the minimum wage in Alabama remains at the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.
In the months that followed the passage of the law, plaintiffs in the case, including Birmingham low-wage workers and advocacy groups, sued the state attorney general, along with the city, alleging that the law was discriminatory.
A federal district court dismissed the case in its early stages. On appeal, a three-judge panel for the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last July reversed the dismissal.
The panel tossed out some of the plaintiffs’ claims but said they should get a shot in court at proving their allegations that the law is discriminatory. It also ruled that the city was not a proper defendant in the case, although the state attorney general was.
But the state moved for an “en banc” rehearing before all of the judges on the court, and the court agreed to that request in January, vacating the opinion issued by the three-judge panel.
On Wednesday, the attorneys general of Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas weighed in on the case in favor of Alabama, saying that they have an interest in ensuring that courts “quickly dispose of meritless challenges to state laws.”
“Particularly challenges that rest on charges of intentional racial discrimination,” they add.
Some of the plaintiffs in the case in a March court filing argue that the restrictions on local minimum wage policies were fast-tracked into law in just 16 days and specifically targeted the city of Birmingham, where about 73 percent of residents are black.
The law, they say, is the “latest example of a pattern of Alabama state actions that intentionally minimize African-American political and economic power in the state by removing power from local governments in African-American majority jurisdictions in favor of a white-dominated state government.”
Another set of plaintiffs, including state legislators and the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus, say in a separate brief that the statute “perpetuates an official policy of political white supremacy that has been maintained in Alabama since it became a state in 1819.”
“Whereby,” they add, “white control is preserved by state government over the governing bodies of majority-black counties, cities, and educational institutions.”
They also say Alabama’s “anti-home rule policy” for localities, embedded in 1901 in the state constitution, serves to “prevent local black majorities from exercising any power to interfere with whites’ property or their access to the subservient, cheap labor needed to create wealth.”
The state defendants call the charges of racism “implausible,” and say lawmakers merely made a decision to pass a minimum wage policy similar to what’s in place in about half of the states.
“These ugly accusations that legislators enacted the Minimum Wage Act because they wanted to deny a living wage to African Americans are unfounded and outrageous,” they add.
They also say the plaintiffs have lodged their claims against the wrong defendants—the attorney general and the city instead of, say, an employer not paying the higher wage the city adopted.
The Republican attorneys general warn allowing cases like this one to proceed will pass policy debates from state legislatures to federal courts. Their brief highlights a situation where Texas was forced to defend a voter identification law against discrimination claims.
“Plaintiffs in that case were allowed to eviscerate legislative privilege, probe the thoughts of legislators who supported the bill, and compel production of thousands of pages of privileged documents,” the brief adds. “The result: no evidence of intentional discrimination.”
Citing prior case law, the AGs say that the “probing inquiries by federal courts” into the motivations of legislatures will “have a chilling effect on the legislative process.”
They also say that too many white workers are affected by the law for it to clear a threshold where it could be considered discriminatory, and that efforts by the plaintiffs to draw links between the law and past discrimination in Alabama fails to bolster their claims.
“Alabama’s unfortunate history is just that—history,” their brief says. “Long past bad acts by others cannot undermine the obvious policy reasons motivating today’s legislators.”
Oral argument in the case is scheduled for late June.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.