The United States Supreme Court recently issued an opinion that effects many Texas property and mineral owners. Specifically, the Court decided the case of Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States in an 8 to 1 decision. The Court determined that certain rights-of-way for railroads revert to private property owners following the railroad’s abandonment of the right-of-way easement. The ownership of the easement may carry with it ownership of the mineral estate. Where it does, and when the easement covers many acres, the mineral interests could be very valuable.
This case is significant for Texans because there are many railroads and railroad rights-of-way throughout Texas. The decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, addressed this central question: what happens to the ownership of the right-of-way easement when a railroad abandons its right-of way. In this case, the right-of-way was granted to the railroad under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875. This Act gives railroads the right-of-way through public lands in the United States. The land at issue in this case was a ten-mile strip in Wyoming, upon which the right-of-way was created in 1908. Subsequently, in 1976, the federal government conveyed the land to Marvin and Lulu Brandt. The railroad later abandoned the right-of-way, and by 2004 all the track had been removed. In 2006, the U.S. government requested a judicial declaration of their title. The Brandts’ deed (which was a land patent) didn’t specify what would happen if the railroad gave up the right-of-way. Mr. Brandt argued that the right-of-way had been an easement, and that once it was abandoned, it was terminated and the easement area belonged to him. The U.S. government argued that after abandonment, title to the right-of-way land reverts back to the government. The U.S. District Court awarded title to the U.S. government and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Chief Justice Roberts reversed the lower courts’ rulings. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion found that the right-of-way was terminated at the time of the abandonment, and that the Brandts owned the property. The Court found that the language, legislative history, and subsequent administrative interpretation of the 1875 Act supported this decision. The Court cited Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States, decided in 1942, in support of its decision. In that case, also decided that under the 1875 Act, the U.S. government granted the railroad only an easement, not fee simple title in the easement property, and therefore, the easement disappeared once it was abandoned. The Court found that in the Brandts’ case that the railroad abandoned the easement in 2004 and the government did not have any interest in the land after. Title to the easement property reverted to the Brandt Revocable Trust as the current owners of the land.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only dissenting justice in the case. She stated that there is a judicial precedent for the concept that when Congress granted land to railroad companies, they did not intend to have these land grants end up in private hands. Justice Sotomayor would have decided that, even if this was an easement under the 1875 General Railroad Right-of-Way Act, it was not an ordinary easement and it should have been determined in favor of the United States. Luckily for property owners who have abandoned railroad rights-of-way on their land, Justice Sotomayor’s view did not prevail.
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