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Washington Supreme Court hears SeaTac $15 minimum wage case: Does city vote cover airport?

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SEATTLE — State, federal and local law may all play a role in the Washington Supreme Court's decision on whether a new $15 minimum wage law in SeaTac applies to airport workers, if the questions asked by justices during oral arguments Thursday are any indication.

They asked such a broad variety of questions that the lawyers barely had time to push the court in one direction or another during the hour-long hearing. The lawyers already had flooded the court's in-box with numerous briefs, so the justices had a good idea of how the attorneys wanted them to rule.

The justices seemed interested in the jurisdictional debate the lawyers presented. But they also wanted to talk about conflicts within the new SeaTac law, modern interpretations of old language in state statutes, and whether state rules would allow the airport to set its own minimum wage.

The Supreme Court hearing is the latest development in the debate over the minimum wage in Washington, which already has the nation's highest state minimum wage at $9.32 an hour.

The Seattle City Council voted early this month to gradually raise the minimum wage in Washington's largest city to $15 an hour. That case is also being fought in the courts.

Residents of SeaTac, the city that surrounds Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, voted in November to raise its minimum wage and give workers other protections. In December, King County Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas ruled that the new law does not apply to the airport because it is controlled by the Port of Seattle, not the city of SeaTac.

Questions asked by the justices during the Supreme Court hearing included:

— Does the Port of Seattle have exclusive jurisdiction over the airport and what does exclusive jurisdiction mean?

PHOTO: Supporters of a $15 minimum-wage initiative that passed in the city of SeaTac last year watch oral arguments on the case in the lobby of the Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday, June 26, 2014 in Olympia, Wash. The high court has been asked to decide whether the ordinance applies to airport workers. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)
Supporters of a $15 minimum-wage initiative that passed in the city of SeaTac last year watch oral arguments on the case in the lobby of the Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday, June 26, 2014 in Olympia, Wash. The high court has been asked to decide whether the ordinance applies to airport workers. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

— Who can set minimum wages under the state's minimum wage law? Does the Port of Seattle have any authority under that statute?

— Would the new SeaTac law, which goes well beyond setting a new minimum wage, potentially interfere with the port's management of the airport? How could this interference be measured?

— Does the SeaTac law do too much and, if so, what parts of the law should be allowed and what parts should be stopped by the court? Can the court pick and choose which elements of the law to keep?

—Do any other state or federal laws conflict with the SeaTac ordinance?

When Justice Debra Stephens asked whether there was any problem with the way the signatures were counted before the minimum-wage initiative got on the SeaTac ballot, Dimitri Iglitzin, attorney for the SeaTac Committee for Good Jobs, which pushed for the law, asked her why she posed the question.

But Iglitzin added that it's up to the justices what issues they take up on a case that could have far-reaching implications.

Attorney Harry Korrell, representing the group of companies that sued to stop the minimum wage ordinance from going into effect, took issue with Iglitzin's argument that the court can't find the statute interferes with airport operations because there would be no proof it has done so.

"That would be a mess," Korrell said of trying out the new law to see its impact. "They are trying to create some nebulous, fact-based standard."

He spent a large part of his presentation talking about how broad the SeaTac law is and said the court should strike down the law, in contrast to the lower-court ruling that the law applied to workers in the city of SeaTac, but not at the airport.

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PHOTO: Supporters of a $15 minimum-wage initiative that passed in the city of SeaTac last year watch oral arguments on the case in the lobby of the Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday, June 26, 2014 in Olympia, Wash. The high court has been asked to decide whether the ordinance applies to airport workers. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)
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