This past Tuesday, lawyers argued in federal district court in Seattle whether the city’s new minimum wage violates the equal protection rights of franchised business corporations. Free Speech For People filed an amicus brief in support of the city, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause protects people, not corporations, and in particular that living wages were a central concern of the Fourteenth Amendment’s drafters. Our local counsel in Seattle, Harry Williams, attended the oral argument and submits this report.

This week corporate America sent one its biggest and brightest hired guns to attack Seattle ’ s minimum wage law. It was a nice touch, creating a ready metaphor for what is wrong with the whole “ ah, shucks, we ’ re the little guy too ” song and dance McDonalds and its corporate allies are putting on.

On Tuesday in federal district court in Seattle, Paul Clement, a famous lawyer for and champion of corporate causes (and who charges hundreds of dollars an hour), swept into town to tell us provincials that his clients are the victims of discrimination. According to Clement, forcing McDonalds to temporarily pay workers a $1.00 an hour more is prohibited by the Constitution.

On the other side, Seattle was represented by Assistant City Attorney Greg Narver, whose salary puts him at the top range of the shrinking middle class —unlike minimum wage workers, he can probably afford a house in Seattle.

Goliath had much to say about what a bully David is, but for Free Speech For People, one of the most interesting things was how little Clement wanted to say about his Equal Protection argument.

McDonalds and its allies had argued that Seattle ’ s minimum wage violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which amended the Constitution after the Civil War and sought to make sure that former slaves received equal protection under the laws of the states.

Free Speech For People submitted an amicus brief in the case showing that part of the motivation for the Fourteenth Amendment was to force employers to pay former slaves “ fair, living wages. ” Soon after the war ended, it became clear that without a way to earn enough to live on, slaves ’ new freedom would mean little. The Equal Protection Clause was part of the effort — never sufficient — to provide former slaves decent economic opportunities.

In papers filed before the argument, the trade group representing McDonalds and its corporate allies argued they were being denied equal protection. Our amicus brief showed that this argument was a perversion of the intent of the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment. In oral argument, Judge Richard A. Jones asked Clement about the Equal Protection argument. Clement demurred, noting that they had not “ led ” with that argument and conceded they were unlikely to prevail on it.

Clement still argued that McDonalds was being discriminated against, but focused instead on the Commerce Clause, which prohibits local governments from discriminating against out-of-state businesses. I don ’ t think that argument is right either, and I thought that Narver was persuasive when he said that the point of the law was to raise the minimum wage, not attack the Hamburglar. The City ’ s lawmakers reasonably thought franchisees, with their access to advertising, training, and name recognition, could raise wages a little faster than other small businesses.

The hearing was on the franchisee ’ s motion for a preliminary injunction, designed to stop the law from going into effect on April 1.

A decision on the preliminary motion is expected on Tuesday, March 17, but a full trial won ’ t take place until later this fall.