Does the United States have a reversionary interest in a railroad right-of-way created by the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 after the federal government granted the lands underlying the right-of-way to a private party?
The United States sought a declaratory judgment in federal district court to quiet title to an abandoned railroad right-of-way. Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust counterclaimed, seeking to quiet title to the right-of-way in its favor. The Tenth Circuit ruled that the Abandoned Railroad Right-of-Way Act and the National Trails System Improvement Act modified the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 to create a reversionary interest in the United States to abandoned railroad rights-of-way. The Trust argues that, under Supreme Court precedent, rights-of-way created by the 1875 Act should be considered easements, not reversionary interests. The United States claims that Congress preserved a reversionary interest in the United States under the 1875 Act, under which the right-of-way at issue was created. This case addresses a circuit split over whether the United States retains an implied reversionary interest in rights-of-way created under the 1875 Act. The Supreme Court will balance private property interests and the public’s interest in rehabilitating abandoned rail lines. More generally, the Court will address whether a grantor of real property impliedly retains an interest in land after it is sold.
This case involves the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 ("1875 Act"), under which thousands of miles of rights-of-way exist across the United States. In Great Northern Ry. Co. v. United States, 315 U.S. 262 (1942), this Court held that 1875 Act rights-of-way are easements and not limited fees with an implied reversionary interest. Based upon the 1875 Act and this Court's decisions, the Federal and Seventh Circuits have concluded that the United States did not retain an implied reversionary interest in 1875 Act rights-of-way after the underlying lands were patented into private ownership. In this case, the Tenth Circuit reached the opposite conclusion and acknowledged that its decision would continue a circuit split. The question presented is:
Did the United States retain an implied reversionary interest in 1875 Act rights-of way after the underlying lands were patented into private ownership?
- Tanya Snyder, Supreme Court to Consider Fate of Rail-Trails, DC Street Blog, (Oct. 24, 2013).
- Dan McCue, Justices to Consider U.S. Right to Rights-of-Way, Courthouse News Service, (Oct. 2, 2013).
- Brian T. Hodges, Brandt v. US: Should the Common Law of Property Be Scrapped?, Jurist.org, (Nov. 1, 2013).