How the West Was Won: What Does Brandt v. United States Mean for Small Business

Date: March 19, 2014

A few years ago the United States sued the Brandt family—alleging that the federal government now owns of a strip of land running through the middle of their property. The land in question—in rural Wyoming—was originally deeded to a railroad company under an 1875 statute. But when the railroad finally decided to abandon its existing railway through the Brandt property, there was a question as to whether the property became the Brandt’s or somehow reverted back to the federal government.

On first blush this may sound like an arcane dispute—but for many hundreds of farmers and ranchers across the western United States, the issue was of great practical importance. Of course NFIB Small Business Legal Center saw the case as about something bigger. The case has serious implications for the larger fight for property rights in America because the federal government’s argument would have swept constitutional principles under the rug.

As we argued in our amicus brief, government should not be able to claim ownership of property simply by redefining previously recognized property rights. That is exactly what the United States was trying to do in this case. But the good news is that, Chief Justice Roberts called the government out on this. As NFIB Legal Center attorney, Luke Wake, explains in more depth on the NFIB Blog, if the United States could get away with redefining previously settled property interests in this case, it would seek to do so in other cases—as might any state or local government. Accordingly, the Brandt decision must be recognized as a meaningful victory in our ongoing fight to defend property rights in America. 

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