Tag: railroads

Supreme Court to Government: Stop Railroading Property Owners

Today, in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, the Supreme Court rebuked another attempt by the Obama administration to adopt a novel and extreme litigating position that was contrary to well-established precedent. Eight justices agreed with Cato’s amicus brief, holding that the United States does not retain a property interest in former railroad lands that are no longer used by railroads. Although this may seem like an arcane issue for Cato to be involved in, the case actually resembles a typical takings case, but this time the government tried to define a property right out of existence rather than pay compensation to the owners.

To be fair to the Obama administration, this case began in 2006, and both Republican and Democratic administrations have been litigating similar cases for some time. Brandt is a best seen as an example of how governments of all stripes will find the path of least resistance to accomplish its goals, including defining a property right out of existence to avoid paying for it.

The Supreme Court Takes up Old-Timey Property Rights

In the 19th Century, when railroads were being built across the West, the federal government granted significant land and benefits to railroad companies. The Great Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 empowered the government to grant railroad companies right-of-way easements to build tracks across others’ land to facilitate the expansion of the nation’s railways – that is, railroads were granted a right to use sections of another’s property for railroad purposes without owning title to the land underneath. In 1976, the government sold the Brandt family a parcel of land in Wyoming which was crossed by one of these railroad easements.

In 2001, the railroad that owned the easement formally abandoned all claims to it.  Typically, when this happens, the easement is simply extinguished and the owner of the land may then use the former easement however he or she wishes. But the federal government had different plans for the thin strip running through the Brandts’ land. In 2006, the government sued for title to the land lying under the former easement on the theory that it had retained a “reversionary interest” in the land when granting the railroad the right of way easement, even though it never actually set aside any interests when granting the easement.  The government thus claimed that after the railroad abandoned the easement (after only ever owning an easement and never full title to the land), full title to the land “reverted” back to the federal government. The Brandts argue that under the basic principles of the common law of property, the government had no such right, and that even if any legislative act allowed the government to somehow acquire their land, such an act would require payment of just compensation under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.

Although this may seem like a small, unique problem, the scope of the Old West’s railway system was huge and those old easements criss-cross the land of thousands of property owners. In 1983, Congress amended the National Trails System Act to allow the government to take abandoned railroad easements and turn them into land for public recreation and “railroad banking.” Landowners have been fighting the taking of their property under the Trails Act ever since, claiming, as here, that the government’s original grant to the railroads contained no residual right of possession for the government.

After the trial court rejected the government’s radical claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit split with the Seventh and Federal Circuit courts (and ignored some of its own precedent on the way) and held that the government did indeed have a reversionary interest in the land, even though it never actually carved itself an exception, as the law requires. The Brandts, faced with the uncompensated government confiscation of a strip of land cutting their property in two, have now brought their case to the Supreme Court in an attempt to keep the government’s hands off their land and off the land of thousands of other landowners in their same position.

After supporting the Brandts’ request for Supreme Court review, Cato, along with four other groups and several property law professors – including Richard Epstein – has now filed a brief supporting the Brandts’ fight against the government’s poorly justified land-grab. We argue that the Tenth Circuit’s decision threatens to unsettle longstanding presumptions of property law because it willfully ignores basic differences between easements and “fee estates” in land and other basic principles of property law like the “strip and gore” doctrine (which holds, for example, that land under a right-of-way is split down the center and owned by those who own the land on either side of the easement).

This case is important, because there are many thousands of miles of old railroad rights-of-way crossing the countryside that would be potentially subject to uncompensated government confiscation if the Court were to follow the Tenth Circuit’s approach.  In addition, some 3,000 to 4,000 miles of old railroad easements are abandoned every year. It’s not entirely surprising that the government would go full throttle on such a shoddy legal argument for the chance to be able to snatch this land back without having to pay for it. The surprising thing is that the Tenth Circuit green-lighted it. We urge the Supreme Court to switch tracks.

The Court will hear argument in Brandt v. United States on January 14.

Cato legal associate Julio Colombo co-authored this blogpost.

The Constitution Protects Even Old-Timey Property Rights

In the 19th Century, when railroads were being built across the West, the federal government granted significant land and benefits to the railroad companies. The Great Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 allowed the government to give railroad companies easements to build tracks — that is, a right to use sections of another’s property without legally owning it. The Brandt family eventually acquired land in Wyoming that came with pre-existing railroad easements.

In 2001, the owner of the easement formally abandoned all claims to it, presumably returning the property to the Brandts. But the government wanted that land. In 2006, it sued for title to the former easement land on the theory that the government retained a residual claim to it after the railroad abandoned it. The Brandts argue that the government has no such right and that taking their land requires just compensation under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.

Although this may seem like a small, unique problem, the scope of the Old West’s railway system was huge and those old easements criss-cross the land of thousands of property owners. In 1983, Congress amended the National Trails System Act to allow the government to take abandoned railroad easements and turn them into land for public recreation and “railroad banking.” Landowners have been fighting the taking of their property under the Trails Act ever since, claiming, as here, that the government’s original grant to the railroads contained no residual right of possession for the government.

Indeed, two federal courts of appeals, the Seventh and Federal Circuits, have held that the government didn’t retain any residuary rights. In the Brandts’ case, however, the Tenth Circuit held otherwise. This circuit split is untenable. Over 5,000 miles of abandoned track has been taken by the government since the Trails Act, and about 10,000 property owners are currently fighting in federal courts to hold onto their property.

Of course, given the possible benefits of not having to pay compensation to landowners, the government has responded to these claims by being aggressively litigious, reaching into its endless war-chest of taxpayer-provided resources to challenge the landowners on every tiny point. As the Federal Circuit said, the government’s behavior is “puzzling” in that it is “foregoing the opportunity to minimize the waste both of its own and plaintiffs’ litigation resources, not to mention that of scarce judicial resources,” but also by advancing arguments “so thin as to border on the frivolous.”