How the West Was Won: What Does the Brandt Decision Mean for Property Rights?

Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States is a case that any property rights advocate should love—especially if you also happen to be an American history buff. Writing for the majority—which included the entire court, with exception of only Justice Sotomayor—Chief Justice Roberts’s eloquent opinion tells a narrative of the American west: “In the early to mid-19th century, America looked west. The period from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to the Gadsen Purchase in 1853 saw the acquisition of the western lands that filled out what is now the contiguous United States.”

Of course key to settlement and development of the west was the emergent railroad system. Though popular sentiment supported the expansion west and the development of railways in that process, the political ethos of the American people would not have supported publicly funded railway projects of the sort we now see in many metropolitan areas. Accordingly, the federal government supported private railroad companies in other ways—first by giving generous land grants, and later giving more limited “right of ways” to the railroads across public lands. So what does all of this 19th Century history have to do with our current fight for property rights in America?

Well, a lot has happened since Congress passed the Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875. This was the Act that gave railroads a “right of way” to build and maintain infrastructure across public lands for the purpose of promoting western settlement and development. In 1942 the Supreme Court explained, in Great Northern R. Co. v. United States, that the 1875 Act gave railroad companies only a limited right to use the subject property—i.e. an easement in the land, which would be extinguished if the railroad ever abandoned its railway. That would mean that the owner holding title the land on which the railroad easement once existed would then own the full and complete title to the land. Indeed, the United States argued as much in the Great Northern R. Co.

But, in Brandt —decided yesterday—the United States took the exact opposite position, arguing that the 1875 Act conveyed something other than an easement, and that upon its abandonment the subject property reverted back to the United States. In other words the United States was staking out a new position in Brandt in a manner that was essentially redefining previously recognized property rights. For the Brandt family who brought the case to the Supreme Court on a petition for certiorari, this was unacceptable because the government was now claiming public ownership of land that it had long ago conveyed to the family. Indeed, the Brandts own the full title to the land subject only to the railroad easement, which is now abandoned.

The NFIB Small Business Center and the Owners Council of America teamed up in this case to defend property rights, making the case for why government should not be able to redefine previously recognized property rights out of existence. Indeed if the United States could get away with redefining previously settled property interests in this case, it may do the same in other cases—as might state or local governments. Government should not be able to take an end-run around constitutional protections for property rights in this manner. Of course that’s the big picture issue. But on a practical level the case is of immediate concern to thousands of western landowners—especially ranchers and farmers—who have abandoned railways running across their land. The decision reaffirms what we have been saying all along: if the United States wishes to acquire these lands from the owners who now hold title to the underlying property, it must pay for what it is taking. Or as one columnist summed it up: Supreme Court tells government to take a hike — but not on private property.

On a final note, it is relieving to see the United States called out on taking explicitly contradictory positions on the same legal issues—albeit 72 years later. In previous cases I have observed, with extreme frustration and angst, that the United States has switched its position in the midst of litigation so as to defeat legitimate legal claims. For ordinary citizens–for whom government exists to serve–the doctrine of judicial estopple would prevent us from changing positions during the midst of litigation for expedient reasons; however, in at least some cases the federal government has successfully argued that this equitable principle cannot apply against the United States. That seems unconscionable and patently unjust. This is an issue that I should hope the Court will eventually address in a future case. But, perhaps the Brandt opinion offers further grounds for a citizen to hold the federal government to positions it has previously taken on a given legal issue. What is clear is that once property rights are recognized, no legislative enactment or executive order can outright extinguish that right without raising serious constitutional problems. 

For further comments and analysis check out Robert Thomas’ blog at Inversecondemnation.com. Also Brian Hodges offers interesting thoughts at the Liberty Blog. And Trevor Burrus offers further insights at Cato Institute’s blog.

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About Luke Wake

Luke A. Wake is a senior staff attorney at the NFIB Small Business Legal Center. Wake has particular expertise on environmental and land use issues, and has worked on numerous other constitutional issues and matters of importance to small business owners. He is an ardent defender of private property rights, which he believes are essential to the free enterprise system and the foundation of American liberty. As a strong advocate of individual rights and economic liberties, he has built his career defending small business interests. Since joining the NFIB Legal Center, Wake has focused on a whole host of issues, from employment law matters to regulatory compliance. In addition to serving as a resource for small business owners, Wake remains committed to the Legal Center’s pledge to ensure that the voice of small business is heard in the nation’s courts. He is also working to advance small business interests in law review articles, including publications in the Berkeley Journal of Law & Ecology, the Texas Journal of Law and Politics, and Competition Magazine. See R.S. Radford & Luke A. Wake, Deciphering and Extrapolating: Searching for Sense in Penn Central, 38 Ecology L.Q. 731, 746-747 (2011); Damien M. Schiff, Luke A. Wake, Leveling the Playing Field in David v. Goliath: Remedies to Agency Overreach, 17 Tex. L. Rev. & Pol. 97 (2012); Jarod M. Bona and Luke A. Wake, The Market-Participant Exception to State-Action Immunity From Antitrust Liability, J. of Antitrust and Unfair Competition of the State Bar of Ca., Vol. 23, No. 1, 156 (Spring 2014); James S. Burling and Luke A. Wake, Takings and Torts: The Role of Intention and Foreseeability in Assessing Takings Damages, in Condemnation 101: Making the Complex Simple in Eminent Domain 449-51 (ALI-ABA Committee on Continuing Professional Education eds. 2011). Before joining the Legal Center’s team, Wake completed a prestigious two-year fellowship as an attorney in the Pacific Legal Foundation’s (PLF) College of Public Interest Law. Wake is a graduate of Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland Ohio. He is a member of the California Bar, the District of Columbia Bar, and the U.S. Supreme Court Bar. He completed his undergraduate studies at Elon University in North Carolina in 2006 where he focused on political theory and corporate communications.
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