WASHINGTON (CN) - The United States does not retain an interest in rights-of-way of an abandoned railroad cutting through private land, the Supreme Court ruled, 8-1, Monday.
Great swaths of land had ended up in control of the railroad companies in the early 1860s as Congress sought to curry private investment in a transcontinental railroad.
Though the government discontinued the practice by 1871, favoring a policy that would instead reserve public land for settlers, it nevertheless granted 15 special acts through 1875 that granted certain railroads "the right of way" through public lands, without any accompanying land subsidy.
One such right of way went to the Laramie, Hahn's Peak and Pacific Railroad (LHP&P) in 1908.
"The right of way is 66 miles long and 200 feet wide, and it meanders south from Laramie, Wyoming, through the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, to the Wyoming-Colorado border," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.
About half a mile of the right of way crosses through 10 acres of a property in Fox Park that the United States patented, a form of land grant, to the Brandt family in 1976.
Though the patent accounts for rights that the railroad might have over the land, it does specify a protocol for any right of way abandoned by a railroad.
The LHP&P right of way wound up in the possession of the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad, which completed abandonment of the land in 2005.
Two years later, the United States asked a federal judge in Cheyenne, Wyo., to take possession of the abandoned 5.35-acre Wyoming and Colorado Railroad right-of-way lying within the Medicine Bow National Forest.
U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson held that the right-of-way had been abandoned in 2009 and rejected the Brandt claim to a portion of the right-of-way known as the Platte Access Road No. 512, which crosses other lands it owns.
On appeal the 10th Circuit considered Supreme Court precedent on the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875, and affirmed for the government in 2012.
The case it considered was the 1942 decision Great Northern Ry. Co. v. United States, which found that rights-of-way granted under the act are easements and not limited fees with an implied reversionary interest.
Reversing Monday, the eight-justice majority cited "basic common law principles."
"When the Wyoming and Colorado Railroad abandoned the right of way in 2004, the easement referred to in the Brandt patent terminated," Roberts wrote. "Brandt's land became unburdened of the easement, conferring on him the same full rights over the right of way as he enjoyed over the rest of the Fox Park parcel."
Roberts highlighted that the government's current argument is an "about-face" from its position before the court 70 years ago.
"We decline to endorse such a stark change in position, especially given 'the special need for certainty and predictability where land titles are concerned,'" he wrote.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued in dissent that her colleagues gave Great Northern too much weight.
"Although the majority canvasses the special role railroads played in the development of our nation, it concludes that we are bound by the common-law definitions that apply to more typical property," Sotomayor wrote. "In doing so, it ignores the sui generis nature of railroad rights of way. That Great Northern referred to a right of way granted under the 1875 Act as an 'easement' does not derail the court's previous unequivocal pronouncements that rights of way under the Act are 'made on an implied condition of reverter.'"
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