Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co.

491 U.S. 1 (1989).

A 1989 United States Supreme Court Opinion on the Eleventh Amendment in which the Court held that congressional abrogation of the Eleventh Amendment immunity to states was not limited to legislation enacted pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment, but also included legislation enacted by Congress under the commerce clause.

The case involved a third-party suit filed in federal court against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania seeking monetary damages for violation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA).  The action arose from Pennsylvania’s alleged negligent contribution to the release of a hazardous substance.

The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that Pennsylvania’s Eleventh Amendment immunity barred the suit. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding no clear expression of intent to hold States liable in monetary damages under CERCLA.  However, after the Supreme Court vacated that decision and remanded for reconsideration in light of subsequent amendments to CERCLA made by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA), the Court of Appeals held that the statute’s amended  language clearly rendered States liable for monetary damages and that Congress had the power to do so under the Commerce Clause.

The third-party appealed the second ruling of the Court of Appeals.

A sharply divided Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ opinion and held that Pennsylvania was amenable to federal jurisdiction in a suit for monetary relief for violating CERCLA, which was enacted pursuant to the article I commerce clause.

Justice Brennan, writing for a plurality of the Court, declared that Congress may unilaterally abrogate the states’ constitutional immunity when legislating pursuant to the commerce clause so long as it expresses its intention to do so in unmistakably clear language.  He analogized the case sub judice to Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 456 (1976), in which the Court had held that Congress could directly abrogate the states’ constitutional immunity when legislating pursuant to the fourteenth amendment.  Justice Brennan reasoned that there was no justification to treat the commerce clause any differently than the fourteenth amendment since both constitutional provisions grant plenary authority to Congress while inherently removing power from the states.  Thus, Justice Brennan concluded that, by ratifying the United States Constitution, the states surrendered their Eleventh Amendment immunity to suit in federal court for money damages whenever Congress elects to render them liable pursuant to its constitutional authority.

Opinion Overruled

The Court’s opinion in Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co. was later overruled by Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996), in which the Court held that Congress lacked authority under the Indian commerce clause to abrogate the states’ Eleventh Amendment Immunity.

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