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Rail-Trails in the Supreme Court: Everything You Need to Know About the Case

 

What's the case called?

Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust et al. (The Petitioner), v. United States (The Respondent).

 

Where can I get the legal particulars?

www.scotusblog.com keeps a great record with all the nuts and bolts on each case the Supreme Court hears: www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/marvin-m-brandt-irrevocable-trust-v-united-states/
The docket number for the case is 12-1173.

 

What's the case about?

The case is about whether public access will be allowed along a corridor of federally-owned land that was once granted by the United States to a railroad company, and that now passes across private property.

The corridor in this case passes through a parcel of land surrounded by Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming that the U.S. Forest Service patented to the Brandt family in 1976. Crossing near the boundary of that parcel is a 200-foot wide corridor of federally-owned land that had been granted to the Laramie, Hahn's Peak and Pacific Railway company in 1908, for the purpose of constructing a railroad.

These rights-of-way were granted by the federal government to railroad companies in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to encourage the expansion of the nation's railroad systems. The federal government saw the enormous benefit of these rights of way to the American people as a whole, and wanted to ensure these vital, publicly financed transportation corridors remained public assets and served the interests of the nation. Congress accomplished this by requiring that these corridors remain the property of the American people should the railroad ever abandon or forfeit them.

Railroad activity along the corridor ceased in the 1970s. The U.S. Forest Service and local supporters converted most of that disused corridor into the Medicine Bow Rail Trail, which opened in 2007 and has become one of the most popular rail-trails in America.

This 21-mile rail-trail has but one disconnection point - the Brandt property. The United States is seeking to establish title over the right-of-way across the Brandt property for the purpose of completing the Medicine Bow Rail Trail and enabling public access to public land. The United States claim to the corridor is based on the established precedent that it had a reversionary interest in the right-of-way. The Brandts disagreed, and so disputed the United States effort to maintain the corridor as a publically accessible right-of-way.

 

Didn't I read that this case had already been ruled upon?

Yes. The U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming and, later, the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, found that the United States did have a reversionary interest in the corridor - that this federally-held right-of-way could be made available as rail-trail - and rejected the Brandt's claim of ownership. However, unsatisfied with these rulings, and supported by well-financed interests, the Brandts continue to appeal. In October 2013, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Brandt's third appeal.

 

What's the central issue in all this?

The issue in question before the Supreme Court is whether the United States retains a reversionary interest in rights-of-way created by the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875, after the cessation of rail service. The case affects more than a century of federal laws and policies protecting the public's interest in railroad corridors created through public lands - and could have lasting impacts on the future of rail-trails across the country.

 

What is the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875?

The General Railroad Right of Way Act of March 3, 1875 (1875 Act) granted railroad companies a 100 foot right-of-way (ROW) on public land on either side of a railroad line subject to certain terms and conditions. Thousands of miles of 1875 Act rights-of-way are estimated to exist on public land, mostly in the western United States.

 

What is Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's role in the case?

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was invited to submit an "amicus brief" to the Supreme Court.

An amicus brief, also known as a "friend of the court" brief, is filed by a party who is neither the Petitioner nor the Respondent, but is known by the court to be able to offer information that bears on the case. This may take the form of legal opinion, testimony or learned treatise, and aims to relate the possibly broad legal effects of a court decision.

In this amicus brief we support the position of the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed with the established legal precedent that says the United States does retain a reversionary interest in rights-of-way created by the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875, after railroad activity has ceased on the corridor.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's amicus brief establishes the great importance of federally granted rights-of-way in providing publicly accessible trails for recreation and transportation, and the threat that overturning established federal law poses to the public's interest in these transportation corridors.

The amicus brief was filed by RTC General Counsel Andrea Ferster, assisted by pro bono counsel.

 

Who are the Petitioners?

The Mountain States Legal Foundation is representing the Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust. The Mountain States Legal Foundation is a conservative public interest law firm with a history of seeking to overturn protections on public lands and the environment in the interests of private ownership and industry. The Mountain States Legal Foundation has recently filed lawsuits seeking to remove protections for endangered species and to allow greater pollution by industry of America's streams and waterways.

A number of other well-funded organizations are supporting the Mountain States Legal Foundation, including the Cato Institute. The Cato Institute has also supported law suits that seek to reduce protections on public land.

 

Who is the Respondent?

The Respondent in this case is the United States Department of Justice, represented by Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.

The cause of protecting public ownership of America's public lands is supported in this case by a number of trails and outdoor recreation nonprofits, including Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. In addition to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's amicus brief, briefs will also be submitted supporting rail-trails by the State and Local Legal Center and the Washington State Attorney General.

 

What might this mean for rail-trails?

A win before the Supreme Court would reaffirm the government's right under federal statutes to secure railroad corridors granted by the United States through federal lands for continued public use.

A loss would almost certainly block plans for the completion of the Medicine Bow Rail Trail, and would also threaten existing and future rail-trails and public highways across America that utilize federally granted rights-of-way. The erosion of this protection of public land may also threaten existing rail-trails that already occupy federally-granted rights-of-way.

 

What other rail-trails occupy federally-granted rights-of-way?

There are hundreds of these corridors across the country, many of which have been converted into publically accessible trails. Some of the better-known rail-trails that occupy federally-granted rights-of-way include the George S. Mickelson Trail in South Dakota, the Foothills Trail and the John Wayne Pioneer trails in Washington, the Weiser River Trail in Idaho and the Rio Grande Trail in Colorado.

 

What is the timeline of the case?

Amicus briefs from both sides are due in December. Oral argument is expected in January 2014, with a decision expected later that year, possibly June.

 

Can I sit in the courtroom to observe the oral arguments?

All oral arguments are open to the public, but seating is limited and on a first-come, first-seated basis. To confirm the date of oral arguments in this case, and for more information on visiting the Supreme Court, got to www.supremecourt.gov/visiting/

 

 


Posted Tue, Dec 10 2013 12:44 PM by Jake Lynch
 

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