Lyle Denniston details the 8-1 ruling in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States: “At considerable potential cost to the federal government, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that land swapped with, or transferred to private owners under an 1875 law became their property in full again once a railroad that ran across the property has been abandoned. The decision turned mainly upon an argument that the government had made to the Court seventy-two years ago and won — an argument that now was turned against it.” The 1942 case that enabled this week’s ruling was Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States.
According to Denniston, it’s still unclear just how much land the ruling will impact: “It is unclear just how many acres (primarily in western states) will be covered by the new ruling, although the Justice Department had told the Court that the case involved the legality of ‘thousands of miles of former rights-of-way’ that the public now uses as recreational trails or park lands.”
In a separate article, Jess Bavin addresses the impact of the ruling on efforts around the country to convert former rail rights-of-way into public trails. Bavin quotes Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the lone dissenting member of the court, who makes the point of how expensive a decision this might represent: “The Court undermines the legality of thousands of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation…And lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”