United States Department of Energy v. Ohio

PETITIONER: United States Department of Energy
RESPONDENT: Ohio et al.
LOCATION: Charleston County Court of Common Pleas

DOCKET NO.: 90-1341
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 503 US 607 (1992)
ARGUED: Dec 03, 1991
DECIDED: Apr 21, 1992

ADVOCATES:
James A. Feldman - on behalf of the Petitioners/Cross-Respondents
Jack A. Van Kley - on behalf of the Respondents/Cross-Petitioners

Facts of the case

Question

Media for United States Department of Energy v. Ohio

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 03, 1991 in United States Department of Energy v. Ohio

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 21, 1992 in United States Department of Energy v. Ohio

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 90-1341, United States Department of Energy versus Ohio and a companion case will be announced by Justice Souter.

David H. Souter:

Each of these cases comes to us on writs of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The cases grew out of Ohio suit alleging that in operating a nuclear fuel processing plant located in Ohio, the Department of Energy had violated the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act as well as state environmental laws.

The United States concedes that when and if it is found liable under either of those federal statutes, it is liable for coercive fines imposed prospectively to induce it to comply with the orders directing it to refrain from statutory violations in the future.

Now, the issue before us, however, is whether either of the federal statutes also waves the Federal Government's sovereign immunity from liability for punitive fines penalizing past failures to comply with federal and state environmental laws.

The Sixth Circuit held that both statutes waive federal immunity from such punitive fines.

In an opinion filed today, we reverse and hold that neither the Clean Water Act nor the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act waives federal sovereign immunity from liability for such punitive fines.

The arguments that the statutes do waive the government's sovereign immunity from those fines are directed to two sections in each statute, its provision for citizen suits and its section dealing specifically with federal facilities.

The citizen suit sections of both the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act or RCRA authorize suits against the United States and empower courts to impose civil penalties in accordance with the civil penalty sections of the respective statutes.

Because however, those civil penalty sections do not provide for any fines against the United States, the citizen suit sections which incorporate them do not waive federal sovereign immunity from punitive fines.

The section of the Clean Water Act requiring federal facilities to comply with federal and state water pollution likewise fails to waive the government's immunity from punitive fines.

In light of our rule, construing such waivers narrowly, that section's provision subjecting the United States to "process and sanctions" is too uncertain to permit the conclusion that it waived federal immunity from punitive as well as coercive fines and textual indicators suggest that the Congress did not intend a waiver broad enough to cover the punitive fines.

The analogous section in RCRA also fails to provide the waiver Ohio seeks.

Like its counterpart in the Clean Water Act, this section waives federal immunity from sanctions but the context of the waiver makes it clear that it is not intended to extend the punitive fines designed to punish past noncompliance.

Justice White has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which Justice Blackmun and Justice Stevens have joined.