How Did 50 Successful Cases Become One Case of “A Stubborn Wyoming Family”?

 

“Monday’s ruling [in Brandt v. United States] was a victory for a stubborn Wyoming family that was the lone holdout when the federal government tried to claim ownership of a twenty-eight-mile stretch of railroad right-of-way in southeastern Wyoming.” Emphasis added.

So says the generally respected SCOTUS Blog which in this case evidently went off the intellectual tracks because the controversy in issue (whether the feds could convert abandoned railroad rights of ways into public biking and hiking trails without paying just compensation) was no idiosyncratic theory advanced by a “lone holdout.” On the contrary, it was a rule both well settled and in this case unaffected by statutory alteration(s). So the SCOTUS Blog’s formulation of the issue is  misleading. In the past decade or so the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the Federal Circuit have decided some fifty such cases in which they rejected the feds’ arguments, and held that upon abandonment of railroad service over these old easements, they terminated and the land underlying them became the unencumbered property of the servient owner, any ownership interest of the formerly dominant owner having ended when the railroad use was discontinued. To get a partial list of these cases, click on http://www.inversecondemnation.com/inversecondemnation/2012/02/guest-post-dojs-rails-to-trails-strategy-fails.html

The feds then tried to argue that these easements weren’t true easements, and that under them Uncle Sam (who had conveyed them to the railroads in the 19th century under the 1875 Railroad Right of Way Act) retained a reversionary interest. Unfortunately for the Feds, there was nothing in the deeds used by Uncle Sam to convey those easements to the railroads, or in the law authorizing their transfer, to support such a theory. To make matters worse, in earlier litigation Uncle Sam took a contrary position in the U.S. Supreme Court, and won, thus establishing a precedent directly contrary to the Feds’ present position. Oops!

Long story short, in the Brandt case, SCOTUS reversed a maverick 10th circuit opinion that had ruled in favor of the Feds, and held that the general rule applied here the same as in all other easement abandonment cases: when easement use is discontinued, the subject property becomes unencumbered by it, and the unencumbered land underlying it goes to the servient owner who now owns it free and clear. A classic example of that occurs when a railroad discontinues train service over a right of way and tears up its tracks. After that, if Uncle Sam wants the land underlying the discontinued easement, he has to pay for it under the “Just Compensation” Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Nothing new or startling about that — that is what has been taught in elementary first-year property courses in the first year of law school.

As Justice Holmes put it: the public is only entitled to that for which it pays. That’s what the constitutional protection of private property against government takings is all about. As the Texas Supreme Court once put it, you can’t confiscate private land just because it’s pretty. So the Brandts were not a holdout  “stubborn  Wyoming family,” but rather good-guy Americans who stood up for their — and their fellow citizens’ — constitutional rights, and vindicated them in the highest court of the land, preserving the integrity of settled law in the process. So what they deserve is a loud “atta boy” for their principled, determined civic mindedness, not snotty derision as “lone holdouts.”

This post was edited on 3/14/14.

Postscript. For those of our readers who haven’t had the benefit — if that is what it is — of a first-year law school property course, and need some authority for what we say here, here’s the highest authority of all: Property for Dummies. And we quote:

“An easement agreement may say the easement lasts only as long as it’s used for a specific purpose, such as for a railroad. If the easement agreement specifies a purpose for the easement, the easement ends when that purpose can no longer be served, even if the easement agreement doesn’t say so.” Emphasis added.

So for that we had to go to the United States Supreme Court? Sheesh!

 

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