Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Potrero Hills Landfill, Inc. v. County of Solano

Sep 13: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, Case No. 10-15229. Appealed from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California. Potrero Hills Landfill (Potrero Hills), a privately owned solid waste and recycling business (one of the three largest landfills servicing the San Francisco Bay Area) in Solano County, California (the County), and twenty-two related businesses appeal the dismissal on Younger abstention grounds [See Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971)] of their 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging the constitutionality of a voter-enacted county ordinance restricting the import of out-of-county solid waste into Solano County -- an ordinance that the County itself believes to be unconstitutional and refuses to enforce.
    The Appeals Court rules, "We hold that Younger abstention does not apply here. Although private mandamus actions seeking to compel the County to enforce the challenged ordinance were ongoing in state court at the time this case was filed, those state proceedings were brought by private interest groups and therefore did not implicate the state's unique interest in protecting its vital executive function of law enforcement; nor did they implicate the state's unique interests in protecting its vital judicial or legislative functions. Put differently, a federal court's exercise of jurisdiction over Potrero Hills' claim would not interfere with the state's exercise of a basic state function and would not offend the principles of comity and federalism that Younger abstention was designed to uphold. Accordingly, we vacate and remand. As part of the remand, we ask the district court to consider whether Pullman [See R.R. Comm'n of Tex. v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941)], rather than Younger, abstention might be appropriate."
    By way of background, in 1984, voters in Solano County enacted a ballot initiative, titled "Initiative Ordinance to Protect Solano County's Environment from Excessive Importation of Solid Waste" (Measure E), capping the annual amount of solid waste that may be imported into Solano County at 95,000 tons. The measure contained no restrictions on the disposal of solid waste generated within the County. Although the County initially complied with Measure E by including annual waste import limits in its Solid Waste Management Plan, it stopped doing so in 1992, in reliance on a legal opinion issued by the Solano County Counsel concluding that Measure E was likely unconstitutional, in light of two recent Supreme Court decisions striking down similar local waste import restrictions as violative of the dormant Commerce Clause. The Legislative Counsel of California reached the same conclusion in its own legal opinion on the measure.
    In a footnote, the Appeals Court references the two historic Supreme Court decisions on this issue, i.e. The Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in violation of the dormant Commerce Clause an Alabama statute imposing a waste disposal fee only on hazardous wastes generated outside the State and disposed of at a commercial facility within the State, but not on hazardous wastes generated within the State. Chem. Waste Mgmt., Inc. v. Hunt, 504 U.S. 334, 336-37 (1992). The Court also struck down on dormant Commerce Clause grounds a Michigan statute prohibiting private landfill operators from accepting solid waste originating outside the county in which their facilities are located. Fort Gratiot Sanitary Landfill, Inc. v. Mich. Dep't of Natural Res., 504 U.S. 353, 361 (1992). The Court held that a county's restrictions on interstate commerce violate the dormant Commerce Clause just as much as does a state's. Id. ("[A] State (or one of its political subdivisions) may not avoid the strictures of the Commerce Clause by curtailing the movement of articles of commerce through subdivisions of the State, rather than through the State itself.").
    The Appeals Court explains the somewhat complicated case saying, "The issue before us is not the constitutionality of Measure E but rather only whether the district court properly dismissed the case based on Younger abstention, a doctrine that forbids federal courts from unduly interfering with pending state court proceedings that implicate 'important state interests.' Middlesex Cnty. Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 432 (1982). The district court determined that the ongoing state mandamus proceedings implicate the state's important interests in (1) enforcing a local ordinance enacted by California voters and (2) enforcing a local solid waste ordinance, and that the remaining Younger requirements are also satisfied. Although we agree that a state's interest in having its executive branch enforce such measures is sufficiently important for Younger purposes, we conclude that a private litigant's interest in seeing such measures enforced, which is all we have here, does not implicate the principles of comity and federalism with which Younger and its progeny are concerned."
    The Appeals Court concludes, "Mindful that a federal court's obligation to exercise its jurisdiction is 'particularly weighty' when the federal plaintiffs before it seek relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of their civil rights, Miofsky, 703 F.2d at 338 (quoting Tovar v. Billmeyer, 609 F.2d 1291, 1293 (9th Cir. 1980)), we decline to expand the 'extraordinary and narrow exception' created by Younger and its progeny to the circumstances presented here, id. (quoting Frank Mashuda, 360 U.S. at 188). Because the state mandamus actions brought by private interest groups did not involve any uniquely state interests in protecting the state's vital executive, judicial, or legislative functions, Younger abstention was not available and did not excuse the district court from its duty to adjudicate this federal constitutional claim. We therefore vacate and remand for the district court to consider Intervenors' alternative grounds for dismissal, including Pullman abstention, in the first instance."
    Access the complete opinion (click here). [#Solid, #CA9]