Ninth Circuit Holds Sovereign Immunity Protects Tribe From Suit Under the Clean Water Act
On June 23, 2021, the Ninth Circuit, in directing the lower court to dismiss a citizen’s suit claim under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), held that the CWA did not abrogate tribal sovereign immunity. Deschutes River All. v. Portland Gen. Elec. Co., No. 18-35867, 2021 WL 2559477 (9th Cir. June 23, 2021). To abrogate a Tribe’s sovereign immunity, the Ninth Circuit explained that a statute must convey “perfect confidence” that Congress intended to abrogate tribal sovereign immunity. Id. at 14. It further found that the CWA does not unequivocally do so because Section 1365 – a section explicitly dealing with United States and governmental sovereign immunity – does not mention tribal sovereign immunity. Id. at 15-16. Rather, Section 1365 states that “any citizen may commence a civil action on his own behalf . . . against any person (including (i) the United States, and (ii) any other governmental instrumentality or agency to the extent permitted by the eleventh amendment to the Constitution).” 33 U.S.C. § 1365. Although Section 1362(5) of the CWA goes on to define “any person” as a municipality (among other things), and Section 1362(4) further defines a “municipality” as including an “Indian Tribe or an authorized Indian Tribal organization,” the court determined that Congress had not clearly intended to abrogate tribal sovereign immunity because Tribes are not included in Section 1365. Deschutes River All., 2021 WL 2559477 at *15-16.
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