Montana property owners tell Supreme Court that Forest Service treated them unfairly

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Two Montana property owners who claim the U.S. Forest Service cheated them by changing the terms of a decades-old public access agreement affecting their private land made their case before the Supreme Court on Nov. 30.

The case is Wilkins v. U.S., court file 21-1164, an appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which threw out their claim on procedural grounds. The case concerns the federal Quiet Title Act, which allows parties to sue the United States government in certain kinds of property disputes.

The petitioners are Larry Steven “Wil” Wilkins, a veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and Jane Stanton, a widow. In 2004, Wilkins purchased property in rural Ravalli County, Montana. Stanton and her husband purchased a nearby property in 1990. Her husband died in 2013, according to the petition filed with the court.

Both their properties are subject to an easement from 1962 owned by the federal government and managed by the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The document conveys to the U.S. “and its assigns” a 60-foot easement “for a road as now constructed and in place and to be re-constructed, improved, used, operated, patrolled, and maintained.”

The original easement provided that the use of the road was to be limited to Forest Service employees and approved permit holders, such as loggers and ranchers, providing access for necessary maintenance of the surrounding forest lands. Access to the road was never intended to extend to the general public, the property owners say.

The situation changed in 2006, when the Forest Service installed a new sign on the road that read “public access thru private lands.” Since the sign arrived, traffic along the easement has surged, strangers have hunted and fired guns at their houses, and the road has suffered erosion and the petitioners’ property has been damaged. At the same time, the Forest Service’s maintenance of the right-of-way has become increasingly sporadic in recent years.

But the facts of the case took a back seat to a technical discussion of points of law at the oral arguments before the high court on Nov. 30.

The Quiet Title Act allows suits against the federal government “to adjudicate a disputed title to real property in which the United States claims an interest,” but states such suits are “barred unless … commenced within twelve years of … the date the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest knew or should have known of the claim of the United States.” The two sides disagree on whether the bar applies here.

Justices considered whether jurisdictional rules that lay out strict deadlines on bringing certain claims apply here, as opposed to “claims processing rules,” which provide greater flexibility for taking fairness considerations into account, according to a Bloomberg Law summary.

“In a string of recent cases, the justices have made clear that if Congress wants to impose a strict jurisdictional rule it must do so unambiguously. Under that new clear statement rule, the majority of time limits are considered non-jurisdictional, or claims processing rules. The United States, however, claims that Wilkins involves one of those rare jurisdictional rules, in part because the case is a property dispute with the federal government,” the summary states.

Chief Justice John Roberts told Jeffrey McCoy, attorney for the property owners, that the court looks at things differently now. McCoy works for the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a national public interest law firm.

“Back in the bad old days where we had a statute to interpret, we looked at all sorts of stuff, you know, hearings, reports, testimony, all sorts of things—sometimes to the expense of the actual language,” he said, adding that today “we have a different approach.”

Using legislative history in interpreting a statute has fallen out of fashion among conservative jurists, so Justice Neil Gorsuch reacted when U.S. Department of Justice attorney Benjamin Snyder suggested the justice may “want to consider the legislative history.”

Gorsuch replied with an “ooh,” to laughter in the courtroom.

“I thought that might be effective,” quipped Snyder.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson told McCoy that things could get “messy and odd” when the court interprets statutory provisions.

“I guess I’m wondering, if we don’t do it over, how do we get everybody on the same page around this kind of determination,” Jackson said.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared Nov. 30, 2022, in The Epoch Times.