Supreme Court to Consider “Rails-to-Trails” Case

Court watchers look forward to the Supreme Court’s “long” conference every year.  After a three-month recess from July 1 until the first Monday in October the Court grants no petitions for review.   During its “long” conference this year the Court considered whether to hear about 2,000 cases.  On October first it accepted eight of those cases, one where the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) will file an amicus brief.

In Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States the Court will decide who owns an abandoned railroad right-of-way:  the United States or a private land owner living next to the right-of-way.

 In 1875 Congress passed a law granting rights-of-way to railroads through public land.  Over the course of the next century, as trucking became a more popular method of transport, numerous railroads abandoned these rights-of-law.  The United States argues that a 1922 federal statute allows the United States to retain the railroad right-of-way if it is abandoned.  If that is the case, and the abandoned right-of-way is located in a municipality, the municipality automatically receives it from the federal government for free.  If the abandoned right-of-way is located elsewhere, a state or local government receives it for free if it establishes a “public highway” on the right-of-way within one year.  State and local governments typically convert abandoned railroad rights-of-way into “Rails-to-Trails.” 

State and local governments often own and maintain abandoned railroad rights-of-way.  The Supreme Court usually cases where at least two federal circuit courts of appeals have ruled differently on the same issue. In Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States the Tenth Circuit ruled in favor of the United States.  In a similar case, Samuel C. Johnson 1988 Trust v. Bayfield County, Wisconsin, the Seventh Circuit ruled against Bayfield County, who intended to build snowmobile trials on the abandoned railroad right-of-way.

Learn more about cases from this term affecting states at the SLLC Supreme Court Preview webinar on October 22.  Register for this free event at the SLLC’s website: http://www.statelocallc.org/.       

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