ST. PAUL, Minn. (KMSP) - The Minnesota Supreme Court heard arguments both for and against allowing Minneapolis citizens the right to amend the city charter to force a $15 an hour minimum wage on all employers.
Earlier this month, the Minneapolis City Council voted against the charter amendment petition after getting advice from the city attorney that the minimum wage issue was more legally appropriate as an ordinance.
But, interest groups supporting an increase in the minimum wage took the issue to Hennepin County District Court and Judge Susan Robiner ruled the wage decision should appear on the November ballot.
The City of Minneapolis appealed and the Supreme Court granted an emergency hearing. Before the court’s seven justices, Charles Nauen, the attorney representing the City of Minneapolis argued that voter in 1920 and again in 2014 decided that direct initiatives should not be a part of the city charter.
“The citizens of Minneapolis have chosen to have a representative democracy,” Nauen said. “And the citizens of Minneapolis have chosen not to have initiative. The lower court decision rejects these choices and it should be reversed.”
But attorney Bruce Nestor representing the minimum wage coalition argued that supporters of raising the wage have no other legal recourse.
“My clients don’t seek an ordinance,” Nestor told the justices. “They believe that city hall has been captured by special interests that will frustrate and prevent the exercise of power under state law to provide for the general welfare of low wage workers.”
Nestor’s legal argument centered in part on Article I of the Minnesota Constitution that establishes the purpose of state government. Article I reads, “Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people, in whom all political power is inherent.”
Nestor argued Article I gives justices the legal opening to allow voters to approve the charter amendment for the benefit and protection of a living wage.
But Associate Justice Natalie Hudson questioned Nestor whether it was legal to have a city charter regulate private businesses. Charters a legal framework, like a constitution that establish the formation of city governments. Nestor countered that such a ruling by the Supreme Court wasn’t only legal, but necessary.
“In order to carry out its functions and its duty to protect the general welfare, it’s necessary to regulate private parties,” Nestor said.
Nauen disagreed saying, “Allowing this result to stand could lead to a very different home rule charter law in the State of Minnesota, and I think it’s inappropriate for that reason.”
But advocates of raising the minimum wage don’t see this as a legal issue as much as a life issue. Tyler Vasseur, a Jimmy John's worker in Minneapolis believes the city is standing in the way of reducing poverty. “The city is jeopardizing citizen led initiatives by doubling down on poverty pay and stealing our vote.”
Steven Suffridge, a Minneapolis McDonald’s employee agrees. “It might cost us in the city to do this, but that should not be a concern because if you give us the raise we should be able to put it back into the system and regenerate it just like recycling.”
No immediate decision was made by the Supreme Court. It agreed to take up the appeal in an emergency hearing so it can rule before the November elections.