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.
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."
That's exactly why I thought the Court would find a way out of this.
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."
This isn't just bad for trails, it's bad for governments that built roads or other transportation on those rights-of-way and it's bad for railroads becasue the point of these coversions is for railbanking.
I'm not sure if there are any local implications of this. I think the Purple Line/CCT is safe.
Update: the ruling may be limited to locations out west
Great swaths of land had ended up in control of the railroad companies in the early 1860s as Congress sought to curry private investment in a transcontinental railroad.
Though the government discontinued the practice by 1871, favoring a policy that would instead reserve public land for settlers, it nevertheless granted 15 special acts through 1875 that granted certain railroads "the right of way" through public lands, without any accompanying land subsidy.
The government says it faces compensation claims involving 10,000 properties in 30 states, possibly topping $100 million.
And here is SCOTUSblog
Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., the author of the Court ruling, made clear that the decision only applied to former railroad rights-of-way that lay across private parcels that the government had given away to private individuals under the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875. The decision would not apply to the rights-of-way property that railroads abandoned after October 1988, because a law passed by Congress that year made clear that those lands would return to federal ownership once the railroads gave them up.