WASHINGTON — The justices ruled 8-1 that government easements used for railroad beds over public and private land in the West expired once the railroads went out of business, and the land must revert to its owners.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said the case was decided based on an 1875 act of Congress and a 1942 Supreme Court decision involving the Great Northern Railway Co.
That ruling confirmed that the government merely had received easements without any long-term land rights, he said. The establishment in 1983 of the federal "rails to trails" program didn't change the court's interpretation.
"We're going to stick with that today," Roberts said from the bench.
The decision could jeopardize the "rails to trails" program, responsible for creating more than 1,400 bike and nature trails, many of them built along railroad rights-of-way.
That prompted a lone dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
"The court undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation," Sotomayor said. "Lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."
The ruling came in a case brought by Wyoming landowner Marvin Brandt, whose 83-acre property is crossed by an old railroad line. Brandt's victory has implications for about 80 other cases involving some 8,000 claimants.
"Thousands of claims pertaining to 1875 Act rights-of-way have been filed," the Justice Department said in its brief to the court. "The United States will be obligated to pay just compensation on many claims in which ownership of the right-of-way is often a determining factor."
During oral arguments in the case in January, justices had a hard time getting information on the overall acreage or miles of trails involved. It "strikes me as pretty unusual that the government doesn't know what it owns," Roberts said at the time. Justice Antonin Scalia, who cast his lot with the landowners early on, called that "incredible."
Justice Stephen Breyer, who has had three bicycling accidents since 1993 — the last of which in April resulted in a shoulder replacement — envisioned a future in which landowners could be besieged by bikers.
"I certainly think bicycle paths are a good idea," he said. But "for all I know, there is some right-of-way that goes through people's houses, you know, and all of a sudden they are going to be living in their house and suddenly a bicycle will run through it."