On March 10, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. U.S., No. 12-1173, holding that a right of way obtained by a railroad under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 was an easement that terminated when the railroad abandoned it.
The General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 granted "right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States" to railroad companies meeting certain requirements. 43 U. S. C. § 934. One such right of way crossed land conveyed by the government to the Brandt family in fee simple, but subject to the railroad's rights under the 1875 Act. In 1996, a successor railroad notified the Surface Transportation Board of its intent to abandon the right of way and completed its abandonment in 2004. The government subsequently filed a declaratory action, seeking title to the abandoned right of way. The Brandt family trust contested the claim, asserting that the right of way was a mere easement and was extinguished when the railroad abandoned it. The district court granted summary judgment in the government's favor. Finding that the government retained an "implied reversionary interest" in the right of way, the Tenth Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the right of way obtained under the 1875 Act was an easement that unburdened the Brandt's land when the railroad abandoned it. The government lost its claim to an implied reversionary interest, the Court explained, in large part because it won when arguing the opposite claim in Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States, 315 U.S. 262 (1942). There, the government had successfully argued that the 1875 Act "granted an easement and nothing more," defeating the railroad's claim to own a "fee interest" in the right of way that allowed it to drill for oil. Great Northern found the text of the 1875 Act "wholly inconsistent" with the grant of a fee interest, as confirmed by the historical background and later administrative and congressional interpretations of the Act. Applying Great Northern in this case, the Court found that the railroad had nothing more than an easement in its right of way over the Brandts' land. And absent any reservation of interest when the United States conveyed the property, abandonment of the easement left the Brandts with a full and unencumbered interest in the land under basic principles of common law.
The Court went on to reject several additional arguments as contrary to this "straightforward conclusion." It found the government's attempt to treat rights of way as "easements" only when deciding who owns oil and mineral rights "improbable" and unsupported by the statute's text. It found that pre-1871 statutes relied on by the government said little about what interest the 1875 Act conveyed. And it distinguished its decisions in Stalker v. Oregon Short Line R. Co., 225 U.S. 142, and Great Northern R. Co. v. Steinke, 261 U.S. 119, as addressing competing claims to acquire and develop land, rather than what land rights the 1875 Act granted to railroads. Finally, the Court rejected the relevance of later-enacted statutes cited by the government.
Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion.