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Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States

ELR Citation: 44 ELR 20049
Nos. 12-1173, (U.S., 03/10/2014)

The U.S. Supreme Court held that a railroad right-of-way that crossed land the United States conveyed to a family in a 1976 land patent was an easement that was extinguished when the railroad formally abandoned it in 2004, thereby leaving the family's land unburdened. The U.S. government initiated the suit in 2006, seeking an order quieting title in the United States to the abandoned right-of-way. It argued that the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 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. But in Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States, 315 U.S. 262 (1942), the government argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that the 1875 Act granted nothing more than an easement. The railroad in that case therefore had no interest in the resources beneath the surface of its right-of-way. The government argued that Great Northern’s characterization of 1875 Act rights-of-way as easements should be limited 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; in fact, such a reading directly contravenes the very premise of Great Northern: that the 1875 Act granted a fundamentally different interest than did its predecessor statutes. The U.S. government, therefore, does not hold title to the land in question. 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.