Back in 2016 the City of Birmingham and the State of Alabama got into a fight. Birmingham, like other cities across the U.S. passed ordinances which raised the minimum wage for those working inside the city. For example, around the same time Seattle had set upon a course to raise the minimum wage there to $15 per hour. Birmingham’s minimum wage was set to top out at $10.10 an hour – and it did. But only for a day.
In reaction to the Birmingham ordinances, the State of Alabama passed legislation to take away the ability of cities to set their own minimum wage. The state legislature in Montgomery limited the ability of Alabama cities to pass laws that would have applied only within city limits. As cities in Alabama and elsewhere have sought to enact progressive ordinances like higher minimum wage laws, and fairness ordinances, conservative state legislatures have fought back by taking away cities ability to legislate and further concentrating power in state capitals.
The immediate effect of the state legislation was that some workers in Birmingham made $10.10 for one day, and had their pay drop to the current state and federal minimum wage of $7.25 the next. Several upset wage earners sued in federal court – where their case was promptly dismissed. In a partial reversal, the 11th Circuit said the case can proceed against the Alabama Attorney General.
The plaintiffs originally had three claims: two constitutional claims and a Voting Rights Act claim. The 11th Circuit rejected two of the claims leaving only the constitutional equal protection claim when the case goes back to the U.S. District Court. After the remand, the surviving part of the lawsuit that can go forward is part that alleges the Alabama Attorney General acted with discriminatory intent or purpose and that the actions enforcing that law had a discriminatory impact. In essence, the case is one that alleges the Anti-Minimum Wage law disproportionately affects racial minorities and that the law was done with race in mind.
The 11th Circuit opinion bolstered the plaintiffs’ evidence of discriminatory impact but they will have a harder time showing discriminatory intent or purpose. Still, the 11th Circuit pointed to the way in which the legislation came about (sponsored by white legislators from white districts adjacent to Birmingham) and “Alabama’s longstanding history of official actions taken for invidious purposes” (language borrowed from the U.S. Supreme Court). The case an important one for the workers of Birmingham and also for cities in general, which are increasingly the main engine of legislative innovation.