This case involves citizen suit enforcement under the Clean Water Act (CWA). In Caltrans, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) brought suit originally against the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and its director, James Van Loben Sels, alleging Caltrans' noncompliance with their CWA permit requiring control of polluted stormwater runoff from roadways and maintenance yards in southern California. Because of Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity constraints, NRDC dropped the claim against Caltrans, an "arm of the state," leaving only the claim against Van Loben Sels for prospective injunctive relief intact. NRDC prevailed against Van Loben Sels, securing injunctive relief.
This is the first Ninth Circuit case concerning sovereign immunity with respect to federal statutes enacted under the Commerce Clause since the Supreme Court decided Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida. In Seminole Tribe, the Supreme Court found that Congress has no duty to abrogate state sovereign immunity under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). IGRA, like the environmental statutes, was enacted pursuant to the Commerce Clause. This decision expressly overruled Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co., which declared congressional abrogation of sovereign immunity under the Commerce Clause to be valid.
Additionally, Seminole Tribe found that because IGRA contained intricate remedial procedures, the Ex parte Young doctrine, which allows citizen suits against government officials for prospective injunctive relief, could not apply. Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, attempted to quell environmental concerns in a footnote which indicated that the Seminole Tribe decision would not implicate other statues enacted under the Commerce Clause like the Clean Water Act.
While the result in Caltrans is undoubtedly an accurate reflection of the state of the law in the Ninth Circuit after Seminole Tribe, Judge O'Scannlain exhibited his wariness of this holding in a concurring opinion. Judge O'Scannlain was concerned about the "persistent erosion" of the Eleventh Amendment, and was "reassured" that the Supreme Court has granted certiorari in another Ninth Circuit case, Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho v. Idaho. Coeur d'Alene held, like Caltrans, that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar a claim for injunctive relief against state officials to enforce a statutory right. Judge O'Scannlain's discomfort may originate from the basis of the Ex parte Young doctrine, which was ostensibly crafted to atone for extreme constitutional violations perpetuated under the color of state law. Because environmental statutes do not readily fall into this category, the application of the Ex parte Young doctrine in these cases may not be appropriate. As Judge O'Scannlain declares, "whatever the result of the Supreme Court's review, its timely attention to the delicate interaction between federal and state governments in the context of the Eleventh Amendment will be most welcome."