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Appeals court to reconsider decision in Birmingham minimum wage lawsuit

A view of downtown Birmingham.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said on Wednesday that it will rehear arguments on a motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging an Alabama law blocking cities — namely Birmingham — from raising its minimum wage.

The decision to rehear the dismissal motion comes after a three-judge panel ruled that the lawsuit could move forward.

The lawsuit is focused on a 2016 Alabama law requiring a uniform minimum wage across the state. The state’s minimum wage is currently at the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

The Alabama Uniform Minimum Wage and Right-to-Work Act passed with haste after Birmingham attempted to raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour.

In its decision Wednesday, the federal appeals court withdrew the July 2018 decision that revived a lawsuit filed against the state by fast-food workers, black legislators and civil rights groups who alleged the law had a racially discriminatory intent.

The Alabama NAACP, Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and others sued state officials, saying the law purposely discriminated against Birmingham’s black citizens by denying them economic opportunities on account of their race and that the Legislature’s actions violated the political process  and Birmingham residents’ voting rights by transferring control from the majority-black Birmingham City Council to the majority-white Alabama Legislature.

The plaintiffs argued the law is an example of Alabama’s majority-white Legislature exerting too much authority over a majority-black city.

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The decision Wednesday is another step in an ongoing, confusing legal battle over whether the lawsuit will proceed to trial before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In what appeared to be a temporary win for the state, District Judge R. David Proctor dismissed the lawsuit two years ago, saying the plaintiffs did not prove their claims of discrimination or voting and civil rights violations.

But the three-judge panel of the federal appeals court came back and ruled the lawsuit could proceed on the discrimination aspect of the case, though it shot down the part of the lawsuit that dealt with voting rights and political process claims.

“The Act was introduced by a white representative from Alabama’s least diverse area, with the help of fifty-two other white sponsors, and was objected to by all black members of the House and Senate,” the three-judge panel ruled in the now-vacated opinion. “And it was accelerated through the legislative process in sixteen days with little or no opportunity for public comment or debate. These facts plausibly imply discriminatory motivations were at play. “

But in another reversal, the court’s decision Wednesday means they will rehear the motion to dismiss the lawsuit before all of the judges instead of just three, meaning the case could again be blocked from moving forward.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall praised the decision Wednesday because it means the lawsuit may be dismissed again before making it to trial.

“I welcome the full 11th Circuit Court’s decision to rehear en banc Alabama’s motion to dismiss this lawsuit, and I believe the state of Alabama will ultimately prevail and Alabama’s minimum-wage law will be upheld,” Marshall said.

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The full court will decide later this year whether to dismiss the case or allow it to move forward. They’ll reconsider the same issues the three-judge panel decided on — whether there is a plausible case that state lawmakers discriminated intentionally based on the race of Birmingham’s residents.

Marshall and the state through its attorneys have pushed back against that assertion.

“Alabama has the same right as other states to enact a minimum-wage law, and it is unjust to accuse Alabama’s Legislature of racism when other states have not only passed similar minimum-wage laws, but those laws have also been upheld by other courts,” Marshall said in a statement.

The original three-judge panel that chose to revive the lawsuit included a Clinton appointee, an Obama appointee and an H.W. Bush-appointed senior status district judge who was appointed to the appeals panel to hear that part of the case.

The senior status district judge, Anne C. Conway, is also a judge on the U.S. FISA Court and was one of the judges who approved the FISA warrant against Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

The full court that will rehear the motion to dismiss is made up of half Republican appointees and half Democratic appointees.


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Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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