A Collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh

Supreme Court rules right of way abandoned by railroads reverts to private property

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 8-1 Monday in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States [SCOTUSblog backgrounder; JURIST op-ed] that a right of way granted under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 [Cornell LII backgrounder] is an easement which can be terminated by the railroad's abandonment, leaving the underlying land unburdened. The majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts leaned heavily on the court's 1942 decision in Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States [opinion], which held that land given away by the government under the Railroad Right-of-Way Act returns to the private landowner once the railroad surrenders its right-of-way. The court's decision is restricted to rights of way abandoned before October 1988, when Congress passed a law clarifying that such lands would return to federal ownership once abandoned by the railroads. Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] for the case in January. In September 2012 the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit [official website] upheld [opinion, PDF] the district court's decision quieting title to the former railroad right-of-way property that crossed the property of Brandt's trust.

About Paper Chase

Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

© Copyright JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2013.