ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT Court Below: 496 Fed. Appx. 822
Congress passed the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875 to provide railroad companies "right[s] of way through the public lands of the United States," 43 U. S. C. §934. One such right of way, obtained by a railroad in 1908, crosses land that the United States conveyed to the Brandt family in a 1976 land patent. That patent stated, as relevant here, that the land was granted subject to the railroad's rights in the 1875 Act right of way, but it did not specify what would occur if the railroad later relinquished those rights. Years later, a successor railroad abandoned the right of way with federal approval. The Government then sought a judicial declaration of abandonment and an order quieting title in the United States to the abandoned right of way, including the stretch that crossed the land conveyed in the Brandt patent. Petitioners contested the claim, asserting that the right of way was a mere easement that was extinguished when the railroad abandoned it, so that Brandt now enjoys full title to his land without the burden of the easement. The Government countered that the 1875 Act granted the railroad something more than a mere easement, and that the United States retained a reversionary interest in that land once the railroad abandoned it. The District Court granted summary judgment to the Government and quieted title in the United States to the right of way. The Tenth Circuit affirmed.
Held: The right of way was an easement that was terminated by the railroad's abandonment, leaving Brandt's land unburdened. Pp. 8-- 17.
(a) The Government loses this case in large part because it won when it argued the opposite in Great Northern R. Co. v. United States, 315 U. S. 262. There, the Government contended that the 1875 Act (unlike pre-1871 statutes granting rights of way) granted nothing more than an easement, and that the railroad in that case therefore had no interest in the resources beneath the surface of its right of way. This Court adopted the Government's position in full. It found the 1875 Act's text "wholly inconsistent" with the grant of a fee interest, id., at 271; agreed with the Government that cases describing the nature of rights of way granted prior to 1871 were "not controlling" because of a major shift in congressional policy concerning land grants to railroads after that year, id., at 278; and held that the 1875 Act "clearly grants only an easement," id., at 271. Under well-established common law property principles, an easement disappears when abandoned by its beneficiary, leaving the owner of the underlying land to resume a full and unencumbered interest in the land. See Smith v. Townsend, 148 U. S. 490, 499. Pp. 8--12.
(b) The Government asks this Court to limit Great Northern's characterization of 1875 Act rights of way as easements to the question of who owns the oil and minerals beneath a right of way. But nothing in the 1875 Act's text supports that reading, and the Government's reliance on the similarity of the language in the 1875 Act and pre-1871 statutes directly contravenes the very premise of Great Northern: that the 1875 Act granted a fundamentally different interest than did its predecessor statutes. Nor do this Court's decisions in Stalker v. Oregon Short Line R. Co., 225 U. S. 142, and Great Northern R. Co. v. Steinke, 261 U. S. 119, support the Government's position. The dispute in each of those cases was framed in terms of competing claims to acquire and develop a particular tract of land, and it does not appear that the Court considered-much less rejected-an argument that the railroad had only an easement in the contested land. But to the extent that those cases could be read to imply that the interest was something more, any such implication would not have survived this Court's unequivocal statement to the contrary in Great Northern. Finally, later enacted statutes, see 43 U. S. C. §§912, 940; 16 U. S. C. §1248(c), do not define or shed light on the nature of the interest Congress granted to railroads in their rights of way in 1875. They instead purport only to dispose of interests (if any) the United States already possesses. Pp. 12--17.
496 Fed. Appx. 822, reversed and remanded.
ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, ALITO, and KAGAN, JJ., joined.
SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Justice Roberts
In the mid-19th century, Congress began granting private railroad companies rights of way over public lands to encourage the settlement and development of the West. Many of those same public lands were later conveyed by the Government to homesteaders and other settlers, with the lands continuing to be subject to the railroads' rights of way. The settlers and their successors remained, but many of the railroads did not. This case presents the question of what happens to a railroad's right of way granted under a particular statute-the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875-when the railroad abandons it: does it go to the Government, or to the private party who acquired the land underlying the right of way?
In the early to mid-19th century, America looked west. The period from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 saw the acquisition of the western lands that filled out what is now the contiguous United States.
The young country had numerous reasons to encourage settlement and development of this vast new expanse. What it needed was a fast and reliable way to transport people and property to those frontier lands. New technology provided the answer: the railroad. The Civil War spurred the effort to develop a transcontinental railroad, as the Federal Government saw the need to protect its citizens and secure its possessions in the West. Leo Sheep Co. v. United States, 440 U. S. 668, 674--676 (1979). The construction of such a railroad would "furnish a cheap and expeditious mode for the transportation of troops and supplies," help develop "the agricultural and mineral resources of this territory," and foster settlement. United States v. Union Pacific R. Co., 91 U. S. 72, 80 (1875).
The substantial benefits a transcontinental railroad could bring were clear, but building it was no simple matter. The risks were great and the costs were staggering. Popular sentiment grew for the Government to play a role in supporting the massive project. Indeed, in 1860, President Lincoln's winning platform proclaimed: "That a railroad to the Pacific Ocean is imperatively demanded by the interests of the whole country; that the Federal Government ought to render immediate and efficient aid in its construction." J. Ely, Railroads and American Law 51 (2001). But how to do it? Sufficient funds were not at hand (especially with a Civil War to fight), and there were serious reservations about the legal authority for direct financing. "The policy of the country, to say nothing of the supposed want of constitutional power, stood in the way of the United States taking the work into its own hands." Union Pacific R. Co., supra, at 81.
What the country did have, however, was land-lots of it. It could give away vast swaths of public land-which at the time possessed little value without reliable transportation-in hopes that such grants would increase the appeal of a transcontinental railroad to private investors. Ely, supra, at 52--53. In the early 1860s, Congress began granting to railroad companies rights of way through the public domain, accompanied by outright grants of land along those rights of way. P. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development 362--368 (1968). The land was conveyed in checkerboard blocks. For example, under the Union Pacific Act of 1862, odd-numbered lots of one square mile apiece were granted to the railroad, while evennumbered lots were retained by the United States. Leo Sheep Co., supra, at 672--673, 686, n. 23. Railroads could then either develop their lots or sell them, to finance construction of rail lines and encourage the settlement of future customers. Indeed, railroads became the largest secondary dispenser of public lands, after the States. Gates, supra, at 379.
But public resentment against such generous land grants to railroads began to grow in the late 1860s. Western settlers, initially some of the staunchest supporters of governmental railroad subsidization, complained that the railroads moved too slowly in placing their lands on the market and into the hands of farmers and settlers. Citizens and Members of Congress argued that the grants conflicted with the goal of the Homestead Act of 1862 to encourage individual citizens to settle and develop the frontier lands. By the 1870s, legislators across the political spectrum had embraced a policy of reserving public lands for settlers rather than granting them to railroads. Id., at 380, 454--456.
A House resolution adopted in 1872 summed up the change in national policy, stating:
"That in the judgment of this House the policy of granting subsidies in public lands to railroads and other corporations ought to be discontinued, and that every consideration of public policy and equal justice to the whole people requires that the public lands should be held for the purpose of securing homesteads to actual settlers, and for educational purposes, as may be provided by law." Cong. Globe, 42d Cong., 2d Sess., 1585.
Congress enacted the last checkerboard land-grant statute for railroads in 1871. Gates, supra, at 380. Still wishing to encourage railroad construction, however, Congress passed at least 15 special acts between 1871 and 1875 granting to designated railroads "the right of way" through public lands, without any accompanying land subsidy. Great Northern R. Co. v. United States, 315 U. S. 262, 274, and n. 9 (1942).
Rather than continue to enact special legislation for each such right of way, Congress passed the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875, 18 Stat. 482, 43 U. S. C. §§934--939. The 1875 Act provided that "[t]he right of way through the public lands of the United States is granted to any railroad company" meeting certain requirements, "to the extent of one hundred feet on each side of the central line of said road." §934. A railroad company could obtain a right of way by the "actual construction of its road" or "in advance of construction by filing a map as provided in section four" of the Act. Jamestown & Northern R. Co. v. Jones, 177 U. S. 125, 130--131 (1900). Section 4 in turn provided that a company could "secure" its right of way by filing a proposed map of its rail corridor with a local Department of the Interior office within 12 months after survey or location of the road. §937. Upon approval by ...