SEATTLE (CN) – A federal judge in Washington Tuesday said he intends to dismiss the state’s suit against a for-profit prison and detention facility operator relating to its failure to pay federal immigration detainees minimum wage, reversing his previous ruling.
“Judges don’t like to reverse themselves,” U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan wrote in his proposed order Tuesday. “Sometimes, however, it is necessary – when the law changes or becomes more clear, or when additional facts come to light, or old facts have new impact as the law becomes more clear.”
Bryan reviewed two new decisions made by higher courts after the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in the case last month.
The judge said the new rulings on intergovernmental immunity – U.S. v. California, in the Ninth Circuit, and Dawson v. Steager, in the U.S. Supreme Court – clarified that federal contractors should be treated the same as the federal government.
Washington does not pay minimum wage to detainees in voluntary work programs and cannot require GEO Group, which is contracted by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, to do so without violating the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Bryan said.
“In the end, if the State is permitted to enforce the Minimum Wage Act against GEO, the cost of civil detention under federal law would be higher than the cost of civil detention under the laws of the State of Washington. This the State cannot do,” Bryan said.
The judge also dismissed unjust enrichment claims and said it was not up to the court to decide if the detainees were being treated fairly.
“But what of GEO’s detainees? Are they being treated fairly under the ICE/GEO contract? Is the contract being followed? Are they being used for work that should, under the contract, go to employees of ICE? Is GEO unfairly profiting by misuse of the Voluntary Work Program? These, and related questions, cannot be addressed by the Court and a jury in this litigation,” Bryan said.
Washington sued GEO in 2017 for violating the state’s minimum wage laws. The GEO-run Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, pays detained workers $1 a day, but the state’s minimum wage is $12 an hour.
Lawyers for the state and GEO Group have until Oct. 4 to respond to the ruling.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office told the Associated Press it will respond to Bryan’s order in a written court filing.
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