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Supreme Court to Review Significant Property Rights Case

Date: January 14, 2014

For Immediate Release
Contact:  Eric Reller 202-314-2073 or Eric.Reller@NFIB.org

Supreme Court to Review Significant Property Rights Case
Court’s ruling will impact landowners across the US

Washington, D.C., January 14, 2014 – Today the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in Brandt v. United States. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Small Business Legal Center and the Owners Council of America previously filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in this property rights case. The brief argued that the government cannot establish a trail across private property without first paying the owner just compensation as required by the Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and, further, the government cannot avoid that obligation by redefining previously recognized property rights.

Executive Director of the NFIB Small Business Legal Center Karen Harned issued the following statement in advance of the Court’s hearing:

“There is more to this case than a land-use dispute over abandoned railways. The arguments raised by the United States—and embraced in the Tenth Circuit—have profound implications for the larger fight for property rights in America.

This is because the federal government is trying to circumvent constitutional protections for private property rights by essentially redefining previously recognized property rights. 

For many small-business owners—farmers and ranchers especially—property is essential to their livelihood and the success of their business. Government shouldn’t be able take away their rights simply by denying they ever existed. As such, we encourage the Supreme Court to overrule the Tenth Circuit’s decision and protect small businesses.” 

This case involves the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875, under which thousands of miles of rights-of-way were established across the United States. The act allowed railroads to acquire easements all over the country in order to lay tracks. These easements were written so that they would revert back to the property owner in the event the railroads ever abandoned the easements. But in 1988, Congress passed a “railbanking” statute which holds that upon abandonment, these easements could be morphed into a public recreational trail, with the landowner receiving no compensation.

In this case the Marvin Brandt acquired land in Wyoming that came with pre-existing railroad easements. In 2001, the owner of the easement abandoned all claims to it, returning the property to the Brandt family. However, in 2006 the US government sued for title to the former easement land on the theory that the government retained a residual claim to it after the railroad abandoned it. Brandt argued that the government had no such right and that taking his land required just compensation under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. However, the Tenth Circuit refuted Federal Circuit precedent and handed over Brandt’s land to the United States without any compensation.

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The NFIB Small Business Legal Center  is a 501(c)(3) organization created to protect the rights of America's small business owners by providing advisory material on legal issues and by ensuring that the voice of small business is heard in the nation's courts. The National Federation of Independent Business is the nation’s leading small business association, with offices in Washington, D.C. and all 50 state capitals.

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