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United States v. Morros



In a suit surrounding the proposed nuclear waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, the United States sued the state of Nevada and the state engineer of Nevada because the defendants denied the plaintiff’s water permit applications. The United States District Court for the State of Nevada abstained from deciding the question, and the United States appealed. The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court’s decision and remanded the case for adjudication on the merits. A dissent was filed by Circuit Judge Hug.

In designating Yucca Mountain the national nuclear waste repository, the United States applied for several water permits that were instrumental in the planned operation of the facility. The decision to approve the permits fell on the state engineer, who could deny the permits for any of three reasons: a lack of unappropriated water, a conflict with existing water rights, or a determination that the proposed use might be detrimental to the public interest. Based on Nevada Revised Statute 459.910,[1] which prohibited the storage of high-level nuclear waste in the state, the state engineer found the water use would conflict with state law and would be inherently detrimental to the public interest. The state engineer consequently denied the permits. The United States sued in district court, but the district court abstained from deciding the case based on the Pullman,[2] Burford,[3] and Colorado River[4] doctrines.

The Ninth Circuit first examined whether the district court had jurisdiction based on the existence of a federal question. Noting that the United States complaint sought acknowledgment that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA)[5] preempts Nevada Revised Statute 459.910 under the Supremacy Clause, an order requiring the state engineer to contemplate the United States’s permit applications without reference to the Nevada statute, and a finding that the state engineer’s ruling was arbitrary and capricious, the Ninth Circuit found these pleadings conferred federal question jurisdiction.

The circuit court disagreed with the district court’s rationale. The district court held that the United States’s constitutional claim was misplaced because the state engineer’s decision was not based on Nevada statutory law, but on the public interest, which was merely reflected in the state statute. As a result, the decision could not be preempted under the Supremacy Clause. The Ninth Circuit did not address this novel argument, but instead held that federal question jurisdiction is determined by the “legal construction of [the plaintiff’s] allegations.”[6] Because the plaintiff clearly couched its complaint as a federal question, the district court could either exercise jurisdiction or dismiss the suit as insubstantial. The Ninth Circuit found that the plaintiff’s preemption argument was far from insubstantial and that independent subject matter jurisdiction existed under 28 U.S.C. § 1345.[7]

Turning to the question of abstention, the Ninth Circuit lined up the Pullman, Burford, Colorado River, and Younger[8] doctrines, reviewed the facts de novo, and methodically dismissed each doctrine as inapplicable. The Ninth Circuit noted that Pullman abstention is appropriate only when three conditions are met: (1) The federal plaintiff’s complaint must require resolution of a sensitive question of federal constitutional law; (2) that question must be susceptible to being mooted or narrowed by a definitive ruling on state law issues; and (3) the possibly determinative state law must be unclear.[9] The court found that those conditions were not satisfied in the immediate case. The court noted that while Pullman abstention required the court to resolve a sensitive question of federal constitutional law, the case before the Ninth Circuit presented no substantial constitutional issues. Furthermore, Pullman abstention required unclear state law, a condition the Ninth Circuit found did not plague the state of Nevada.

Burford abstention is proper where a complicated state regulatory scheme renders federal judicial rulings of little assistance.[10] The Ninth Circuit found that the requirements for Burford abstention were not met in the plaintiff’s case because complex state law issues did not exist. The court also noted that Burford abstention was not appropriate because the United States’s case was based on preemption.

The district court primarily cited Colorado River[11] as its basis from abstaining from deciding the case. Abstention based on this doctrine was not warranted because, while Colorado River recognized a need for unified state adjudication when sanctioned by Congress,[12] Congress did not in this instance express a preference for unified action. Additionally, the facts of Colorado River were dissimilar from the facts before the Ninth Circuit, making application of the doctrine inappropriate. Finally, unlike Colorado River, which involved a state law claim pursued in federal court, this case was based on federal law that the state sought to adjudicate in state court. To this, the Ninth Circuit noted, “[i]t would be surprising indeed if Congress had passed a law expressing a preference for state adjudication of federal preemption issues.”[13]

While the district court did not base abstention on the Younger doctrine, the Ninth Circuit nonetheless explained why it was inapplicable. Younger abstention is designed to “avoid unnecessary conflict between state and federal governments.”[14] The court noted that there had already been a lengthy history of conflict between Nevada and the United States on the issue of nuclear waste, and therefore abstention based on this doctrine would be “disingenuous.”[15]

The dissent felt that Younger was applicable. Because state proceedings implicating important state interests had been initiated, and those proceedings provided an opportunity to raise federal questions, Younger‘s three-pronged test was satisfied. Consequently, the dissent would have abstained under color of the Younger doctrine.

[1] Nev. Rev. Stat. 459.910(1) (2001).

[2] Railroad Comm’n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941).

[3] Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943).

[4] Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976).

[5] Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendments of 1987, 42 U.S.C. §§ 10101-10270 (2000).

[6] Ultramar America Ltd. v. Dwelle, 900 F.2d 1412, 1414 (9th Cir. 1990) (alterations in original) (quoting Tennessee v. Union & Planters’ Bank, 152 U.S. 454, 460 (1894)).

[7] 28 U.S.C. § 1345 (2000).

[8] Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).

[9] United States v. Morros, 268 F.3d 695, 703-704 (9th Cir. 2001).

[10] Knudsen Corp. v. Nevada State Dairy Comm., 676 F.2d 374, 376 (9th Cir. 1982). Under Burford, courts may decline to rule on an essential local issue arising out of a complicated state regulatory scheme where (1) the state has chosen to concentrate suits challenging the actions of the agency involved in a particular court; (2) federal issues could not be separated easily from complex state law issues with respect to which state courts might have special competence; and (3) federal review might disrupt state efforts to establish a coherent policy. Id. at 377.

[11] 424 U.S. 800 (1976). In Colorado River, the Supreme Court found that “there are principles unrelated to considerations of proper constitutional adjudication and regard for federal-state relations which govern in situations involving the contemporaneous exercise of concurrent jurisdictions. . .These principles rest on considerations of wise judicial administration, giving regarding to conservation of judicial resources and comprehensive disposition of the litigation.” Id. at 817.

[12] United States v. Morros, 268 F.3d 695, 706-707 (9th Cir. 2001).

[13] Id. at 707.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 708.

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