Recent Court Rulings
In Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States the Court held 8-1 that a private party, rather than the federal government, owns an abandoned railroad right-of-way granted by the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875. When the federal government owns abandoned railroad rights-of-way, state and local governments may convert them into “Rails-to-Trails.”
In 1908 the United States granted the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railroad Company a right-of-way to build a railroad over public land in Wyoming pursuant to the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875. In 1976 the United States granted to the Brandts a parcel of land that this right-of-way ran through. In 2004 the successor railroad abandoned the right-of-way. The Brandts contested the United States claim that it owns the abandoned right-of-way.
The Court ruled against the United States “in large part because it won when it argued the opposite before this Court more than 70 years ago in the case of Great Northern Railway Co. v. United States.” In Great Northern oil was discovered under an 1875 Act right-of-way. The United States claimed that the railroad had been given only an easement (and the United States owned everything beneath the surface) because after 1871, when Congress stopped giving railroads parcels of land and only gave them rights-of-way, the United States also stopped retaining a right of reverter in the event of abandonment and instead granted railroads mere easements.
The United States and the SLLC argued that the Court should not read Great Northern as broadly and that a series of federal statutes apply to abandoned 1875 rights-of-way and grant the United States title to abandoned rights-of-way unless a state or local government establishes a “public highway,” including a recreational trail, within one year of abandonment. The Justices discussed at oral argument the SLLC brief which argued that state and local governments have relied on these statutes. Yet the Court concluded they don’t apply to 1875 rights-of-way because “these statutes do not tell us whether the United States has an interest in any particular right of way; they simply tell us how any interest the United States might have should be disposed of.”
Justice Sotomayor, the lone dissenter, summarizes why this case is a loss for federal, state, and local government: “[T]he Court undermines the legality of thousands of miles 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.”
Charles Montange of the Law Offices of Charles H. Montange in Seattle, Washington, wrote the SLLC’s amicus brief. The National Conference of State Legislatures, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, the International City/County Management Association, the United States Conference of Mayors, the International Municipal Lawyers Association, and the American Planning Association signed onto the SLLC's brief.
In Sprint Communications Company v. Jacobs the Court held that a federal court should not have abstained from deciding a case where a state court also was reviewing a decision of the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) because the IUB proceedings did not “resemble . . . state enforcement actions” where abstention is appropriate.
Sprint withheld payment of intercarrier access fees for Voice over Internet Protocol calls to an Iowa communications company, Windstream, and filed a complaint with the IUB asking it to prevent Windstream from discontinuing service to Sprint. The IUB ordered Sprint to pay, and Sprint challenged the IUB’s decision in federal and state courts simultaneously. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, held that Younger abstention does not apply in this case. The Court reasoned that Younger abstention only applies in three “exceptional circumstances,” including civil enforcement proceedings. The IUB proceedings in this case did not resemble state enforcement actions because they were not “akin to criminal prosecution” and were not initiated by “the State in its sovereign capacity.” Instead, Sprint initiated the action and no state authority investigated Sprint or filed a complaint against Sprint.
The SLLC’s brief argues what should matter in determining whether Younger abstention applies is the strength of the state interest in the proceeding not the label of “remedial” or “coercive.” And the integrity of the judicial process is maintained by state courts being allowed to resolve issues initiated before them that directly affect state and local government.
Kira Klatchko and Irene Zurko of Best, Best & Krieger LLP wrote the SLLC’s brief which the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association signed onto.