The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has reinstated a lawsuit filed by a landfill operator and waste haulers challenging the constitutionality of a local ordinance that restricts trash imports into a California county. Potrero Hills Landfill, Inc. v. County of Solano, No. 10-15229 (9th Cir. 9/13/11). Enacted by voter initiative in 1984, the ordinance, known as “Measure E,” caps the annual amount of solid waste that may be imported into Solano County, California, at 95,000 tons. The ordinance contains no restrictions on the disposal of solid waste generated within the county.
A landfill operator and several waste haulers challenged the ordinance in 2009, alleging that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause by placing an unfair burden on interstate commerce. The district court dismissed the complaint based on the “abstention doctrine,” which bars federal courts from intruding in pending proceedings that implicate “important state interests.” Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). The court cited ongoing lawsuits brought by private interest groups against the county alleging failure to enforce the ordinance. Plaintiffs appealed.
Reversing, the appeals court held that the district court erred in dismissing the complaint on abstention grounds. It ruled that because private citizens, not the government, initiated the pending state lawsuits, the actions are not sovereign in nature nor do they exercise the state’s executive authority. They therefore do not invoke any uniquely state interests. The court ordered the district court to determine whether the ordinance conflicts with federal constitutional provisions or if there is an alternative legal basis supporting dismissal.