Monday, March 10, 2014

Property rights victory!


certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the tenth circuit

No. 12-1173. Argued January 14, 2014--Decided March 10, 2014

Congress passed the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 to provide railroad companies "right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States," 43 U. S. C. §934. One such right of way, obtained by a railroad in 1908, crosses land that the United States conveyed to the Brandt family in a 1976 land patent. That patent stated, as relevant here, that the land was granted subject to the railroad's rights in the 1875 Act right of way, but it did not specify what would occur if the railroad later relinquished those rights. Years later, a successor railroad abandoned the right of way with federal approval. The Government then sought a judicial declaration of abandonment and an order quieting title in the United States to the abandoned right of way, including the stretch that crossed the land conveyed in the Brandt patent. Petitioners contested the claim, asserting that the right of way was a mere easement that was extinguished when the railroad abandoned it, so that Brandt now enjoys full title to his land without the burden of the easement. The Government countered that the 1875 Act granted the railroad something more than a mere easement, and that the United States retained a reversionary interest in that land once the railroad abandoned it. The District Court granted summary judgment to the Government and quieted title in the United States to the right of way. The Tenth Circuit affirmed.

Held: The right of way was an easement that was terminated by the railroad's abandonment, leaving Brandt's land unburdened. Pp. 8-17.

     (a) The Government loses this case in large part because it won when it argued the opposite in Great Northern R. Co. v. United States, 315 U. S. 262. There, the Government contended that the 1875 Act (unlike pre-1871 statutes granting rights of way) granted nothing more than an easement, and that the railroad in that case therefore had no interest in the resources beneath the surface of its right of way. This Court adopted the Government's position in full. It found the 1875 Act's text "wholly inconsistent" with the grant of a fee interest, id., at 271; agreed with the Government that cases describing the nature of rights of way granted prior to 1871 were "not controlling" because of a major shift in congressional policy concerning land grants to railroads after that year, id., at 278; and held that the 1875 Act "clearly grants only an easement," id., at 271. Under well-established common law property principles, an easement disappears when abandoned by its beneficiary, leaving the owner of the underlying land to resume a full and unencumbered interest in the land. See Smith v. Townsend, 148 U. S. 490, 499. Pp. 8-12.

     (b) The Government asks this Court to limit Great Northern's characterization of 1875 Act rights of way as easements to the question of who owns the oil and minerals beneath a right of way. But nothing in the 1875 Act's text supports that reading, and the Government's reliance on the similarity of the language in the 1875 Act and pre-1871 statutes directly contravenes the very premise of Great Northern: that the 1875 Act granted a fundamentally different interest than did its predecessor statutes. Nor do this Court's decisions in Stalker v. Oregon Short Line R. Co., 225 U. S. 142, and Great Northern R. Co. v. Steinke, 261 U. S. 119, support the Government's position. The dispute in each of those cases was framed in terms of competing claims to acquire and develop a particular tract of land, and it does not appear that the Court considered--much less rejected--an argument that the railroad had only an easement in the contested land. But to the extent that those cases could be read to imply that the interest was something more, any such implication would not have survived this Court's unequivocal statement to the contrary in Great Northern. Finally, later enacted statutes, see 43 U. S. C. §§912, 940; 16 U. S. C. §1248(c), do not define or shed light on the nature of the interest Congress granted to railroads in their rights of way in 1875. They instead purport only to dispose of interests (if any) the United States already possesses. Pp. 12-17.
496 Fed. Appx. 822, reversed and remanded.

     Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

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