RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Medicine Bow – Routt National Forest
DOCKET NO.: 12-1173
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
CITATION: 572 US (2014)
GRANTED: Oct 01, 2013
ARGUED: Jan 14, 2014
DECIDED: Mar 10, 2014
Anthony A. Yang - on behalf of the respondent
Steven J Lechner - on behalf of the petitioners
Facts of the case
In 1908, the United States granted land, known as a right-of-way (ROW) to the Hahn's Peak and Pacific Railway Company to build a 66-mile railway from Laramie, Wyoming to Colorado. In 1976, the United States granted Fox Park, Wyoming⎯land that surrounds the ROW⎯to Melvin and Lula Brandt. In 1986, a new company, the Wyoming and Colorado Railway Company, acquired the ROW. The company operated the ROW until it officially abandoned the land in 2003. Following the abandonment, the United States sued the Brandt Revocable Trust and other potential property owners under 42 USC 912, a statute governing the disposition of abandoned or forfeited railroad grants. The government argued that this statute reverts abandoned ROWs back to the federal government's exclusive possession. The United States sought a judicial order of abandonment and exclusive possession of the ROW. The Brandt Revocable Trust and property owners filed a countersuit seeking full possession of the ROW, insofar as it cut through their land. They argued that the statute only granted an easement to the United States, not full possession. The district court granted the interest in the ROW to the United States and the US. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed.
Did the United States retain an implied ownership interest in the ROW property after the underlying lands were granted into private ownership?
Media for Brandt Revocable Trust v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 14, 2014 in Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 10, 2014 in Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States
I have the opinion of the Court this morning in case 12-1173 Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust versus the United States.
This case has its roots in America's west road expansion in the early and mid 19th century.
It was during that period that the -- that the lands from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean were acquired filling out what is now the contiguous United States.
Now once that was done the challenge for the young country was how to develop and settle that vast expanse.
Railroads were a key part of the answer.
To encourage to their construction, Congress granted railroad companies a right of way over public lands which is what most of the land was at the time.
Congress also gave the railroads an enormous amount of public land outright which they could sell to help finance the construction.
The lands over which the railroad tracks were laid were eventually granted the homesteaders or sold to others, but with the railroads of course retaining their rights of way over that land.
Now this was how things work not only for the big lines such as the Union Pacific but for the bit players as well.
One of the latter was the Laramie, Hahn's Peak, and Pacific Railroad or the LHP&P.
It acquired a right of way and built its line from Laramie, Wyoming to Coalmont, Colorado.Its proprietors predicted that it would become “one of the most important railroads systems in the country”, it did not.
In fact, local said LHP&Ps stood for late, hard pressed and panicking.
Anyway, the railroad went through several owners until beginning in 1996, the then owner, the Wyoming and Colorado railroad closed the line, tore up the tracks and abandoned its right of way.
The land over which the right of way ran was then owned by the Brandt family which had purchase that from the federal government in 1976 that purchase of course was subject to the right of way.
When the Wyoming in Colorado abandoned the right of way a dispute arose over who it went to, the Brandt family said it should get the right of way because the right of way was under the law something called an easement.
An easement is a right to do something over someone else's land nothing more.
Now when the Wyoming and Colorado stopped using its easement for railroad purposes, the Brandt's argued full right to use the land went to them because they own the underlying parcel.
The Government saw things differently.
According to it, when it sold the land to LHP&P, the predecessor to the Wyoming in Colorado, the Government granted more than a mere easement.
It granted substantial property rights and the land itself not just the right of use over the land.
That meant that when the railroad left the scene, those rights in the land when back to the Government.
Now, that is the dispute that we decide today.
It turns out however that we think the Supreme Court pretty much decided the legal issues 70 years ago.
At the time, the Court had before a case like this one but the Government was on the other side.
In that case the great Northern Railroad had one of these rights of way and it discovered oil deposits under its right of way.
It wanted to drill for the oil but the Government said, “No.”
The Government said, “An owner of a right of way such as Great Northern had only an easement, the right to run tracks, trains, over the land and nothing else in particular no rights in the underlying land."
We agreed with the Government and told Great Northern that it could not drill.
That was good news for the government then but it is bad news for it today.
The Court said these rights of way were mere easements 70 years ago and we're going to stick with that today.