Supreme Court Action: Railroad Right-of-Ways

The Supreme Court issued one opinion this morning.  It concerns a land grant to a private individual subject to a right of way given to a railroad under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875.  The question is who gets the land associated with the right of way when the railroad abandons the right-of-way?  The Government claimed that the subject land reverted back to federal control.  The current owners of the full parcel, in this case the Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust, claimed the right-of-way grant to the railroad was an easement that extinguished when it was abandoned.

The issue was litigated in federal district court where the judge held for the Government.  The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.  The Supreme Court reversed.  The history of the Act, the specifics land patent grant to the Brandts, the history of land grants generally, and the various changes to the legislation are contained in the opinion.  They are relevant for context, though the Court based its decision on a case decided some 70 years earlier where the Government argued the exact opposite of what argued in this case.  That earlier case is Great Northern R. Co. v. United States, 315 U.S. 262 (1942) where the Government stated “the 1875 Act granted an easement and nothing more.”

Though there had been changes to the Act over the years, its terms still applied. The Government wanted to limit the affect of Great Northern R. Co. on this dispute.  The Court stated that nothing had changed that required it to modify the earlier opinion.

The case is Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States (12-1173).  Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan.  Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion.

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