Minimum Wage

The U.S. Courthouse for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. [MIKE STEWART/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

ATLANTA — Several federal appeals court judges appeared skeptical Tuesday of a lawsuit by fast-food workers and civil rights groups accusing Alabama lawmakers of racial discrimination for blocking a minimum-wage hike in the city of Birmingham.

The plaintiffs accused the Legislature of targeting a mostly African American city in a way that disproportionately harms black workers. Their argument was ruled plausible last year by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed a judge's decision to dismiss their lawsuit. But judges on a 12-judge 11th Circuit panel that reheard the case Tuesday spent little time addressing claims of racism, focusing instead on a narrow procedural issue.

Some judges questioned whether the lawsuit was properly filed against Alabama's attorney general. Failure to sue the correct party would get the case thrown out.

Judges asked how a court order against the attorney general without additional legal action in Alabama courts would force employers to pay Birmingham's higher minimum wage.

Eric Brown, a plaintiffs' attorney, said the attorney general is the right defendant because he had the authority to enforce the state law and had shown a willingness to do so, indicating to employers that they need not pay Birmingham's higher minimum wage.

The lone African American judge on the panel, Charles Wilson, pushed back against his colleagues' concerns that an 11th Circuit ruling wouldn't affect state courts or employers. Wilson was among the judges on the unanimous, three-judge panel that sided with the workers and civil rights groups.

"We only have to do our job," he said.

At issue was a 2016 Alabama statute requiring every city in the state to have a minimum wage tied to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The workers and civil rights groups sued after the state law effectively nullified a city council vote to increase Birmingham's wage to $10.10 an hour.

State officials countered that the law is race-neutral and similar to laws in nearly two dozen other states.

The three-judge panel said in its ruling last year the "plaintiffs have stated a plausible claim that the Minimum Wage Act had the purpose and effect of depriving Birmingham's black citizens equal economic opportunities on the basis of race."

State officials asked the appeals court to reconsider with a hearing before a larger panel of judges.

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