U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court rules for landowner disputing US claim to bike-trail right of way

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled for a Wyoming property owner fighting the federal government’s effort to construct a bike trail on abandoned railroad tracks.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the government did not retain a right of way when the railroad abandoned the tracks. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion (PDF) and Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone dissenter.

The Mountain States Legal Foundation represented landowner Melvin Brandt, who opposed the government’s claim to the land when it filed an action to quiet title in 2006. Brandt’s parents had obtained title to the land crossed by the railroad from the U.S. government in 1976, subject to the rights granted to the railway company, its successors and assigns.

The case called on the court to interpret an 1875 law granting railroads a right of way through public lands. According to Roberts, the U.S. government argued the law “granted the railroads something more than an easement [in the abandoned railroad land], reserving an implied reversionary interest in that something more to the United States.” Roberts, however, said that interpretation was wrong.

The United States did not reserve any interest in the right of way when it conveyed the land to Brandt’s parents, and the railroad merely held an easement that terminated with abandonment, Roberts said. He cited a 1942 case, Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States, in which the government argued that only an easement had been granted and the railroad had no right to drill for oil under its right of way.

“The government loses [its] argument today, in large part because it won when it argued the opposite before this court more than 70 years ago,” Roberts said.

Sotomayor argued the majority opinion placed on the Great Northern precedent “more weight than that case will bear.” The court has long considered railway rights apart from the usual common-law regime, she said.

“By changing course today,” Sotomayor wrote, “the court undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation. And lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

SCOTUSblog dubs the dispute the “rails to trails” case. The case is Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States.

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