A recent Supreme Court case may have a far-reaching impact on many of the United States’ “rails-to-trails” biking and jogging paths. In March, the Supreme Court held in an 8-1 decision that rights of way granted to railroad companies during the nineteenth century were mere easements without reversionary interests to the United States government, triggering constitutional Takings Clause issues.
Brandt concerned a dispute between a landowner and the federal government, which had filed a quiet title action for a ten-acre piece of Wyoming land over which failed railways had operated for decades. The case stemmed from the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875, a statute which provided railroad companies the right of way through all public lands. The law remained in effect until 1976, when it was repealed as part of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
A few months before the law was repealed, the Government granted an 83-acre parcel of land in Wyoming to Melvin and Lulu Brandt in fee simple, with an exception for rights granted to a certain railroad company under the Act of 1875. In 2004, the company’s successor opted to abandon the right of way and tear up the railway after various failed ventures. Two years later, the United States initiated action to seek judicial declaration of abandonment and an order quieting title to the Government to the abandoned right of way. The Brandts contested the action, arguing that the right of way was just an easement, and thus was extinguished upon abandonment, leaving the land unburdened by it.
In the Court’s opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts (writing for the majority) drew an analogy to Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States, 315 U.S. 262 (1942), a case in which the Government argued the for the opposite interpretation of the 1875 Act. In Great Northern Railway, which centered on a dispute over the rights to drill beneath the surface of a right of way granted by the Act, the Court relied on Section 4 of the Act (“all such lands over which such right of way shall pass shall be disposed of subject to such right of way”) in agreeing with the Government that the Act’s language was “wholly inconsistent with the grant of a fee interest.” The Court applied the same interpretation in Brandt, seeing no reason to draw a distinction between the two cases.
The Government had argued that the precedential weight of Great Northern was limited to the question of who owned the minerals beneath a right of way. The Court dismissed that proposition summarily, saying Great Northern “mean[s] what it said.” Next, the Government argued that language in the 1875 Act’s predecessor statutes show that Congress intended to reserve a reversionary interest in the lands granted under the 1875 Act . The Court dismissed that contention as well, citing Great Northern as saying that the previous statutes have little relevance to the nature of the interests granted by the 1875 Act.
While Brandt may seem on the surface to be a relatively inconsequential case with narrow application, it could, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, “cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.” The decision may force the United States to pay out claims to all the landowners whose land was converted to bike paths and running trails by the Government as part of its rails-to-trails operation. If that land was not the rightful property of the Government, as Brandt seems to hold, then its conversion to government property would be an unconstitutional taking under the Fifth Amendment, and thousands of landowners would be entitled to just compensation. Those who decide to litigate the issue and seek rightful ownership of the land may force some recreational paths to be shut down. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the Brandt decision is likely to lead to years of fallout litigation.