U. S. Supreme Court rules in favor of property owner over railroad right-of-way

by David Roland, for
Freedom Foundation

Posted 3/17/2014

On March 10, 2014, eight of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices responded to the U.S. government’s efforts to bully property owners by punching the bully square in the nose.

In 1976 the U.S. government granted Melvin Brandt a “land patent” giving him ownership of 83 acres of land in Wyoming. The land was passed to the Brandt family subject only to a few existing limitations, including a railroad right-of-way that ran across it.  In 1996 the railroad company announced that it was abandoning those rights, at which point the right-of-way ceased to exist. By 2004 the railroad’s abandonment of the property was complete. Two years later, however, the U.S. government announced its intention to convert the old railway lines into publicly-owned trails and it sued Brandt (and a number of other owners of property that used to belong to the government) in order to assert that the government had a preexisting legal right of ownership over the abandoned rail lines – a move that would allow the use of the property for trails without requiring the government to compensate the property owners for the loss of their land.   

The legal issue raised by that lawsuit put the government in a strange position, because it required the government to argue that the relevant law under which it had initially sold the property should be interpreted in a very specific way.  But in fact the government had argued in previous cases that the law in question meant the exact opposite. The government’s earlier arguments (which the U.S. Supreme Court had, in fact, adopted in those older cases) worked in favor of the Brandt family. In the case that was resolved today, the government had been forced to argue that its earlier position – and the case in which the Supreme Court officially adopted that position – was now incorrect.

Fortunately, all but one of the justices recognized the hypocrisy of the government’s position and ruled in favor of the property owners. By doing so, the court has prevented the government from effectively stealing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of property rights from American citizens who had properly obtained ownership of land formerly owned by the federal government. It just goes to show that even though courts usually tilt in favor of the government, citizens should still have hope that they can make a difference by fighting back.

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