Supreme Court rules in favor of Montana landowners in major property rights case

Supreme Court rules in favor of Montana landowners in major property rights case



By Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.


In a victory for property rights advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court March 28 ruled that two Montana landowners can continue their legal battle against the U.S. Forest Service for allegedly changing the terms of a 1962 easement over access to a road that runs through their property near the Bitterroot National Forest.


In a 6-3 ruling that crossed ideological lines, justices sided with arguments made by landowners Larry “Wil” Wilkins and Jane Stanton that their suit against the government had not gone past the statutory deadline. The High Court’s ruling in Wilkins v. United States reversed two lower court decisions.


Pitting property rights against public access, the case involves a rural road on which the Forest Service had an easement allowing for public access to the nearby National Forest. But the plaintiffs said it was rarely used for that purpose until the Forest Service, without prior consultation with landowners, in 2006 when the Forest Service posted a sign on the road reading “Public Access Through Private Lands.” After the sign went up, the character of the neighborhood changed dramatically, with property owners having to confront unruly trespassers on a regular basis. Property owners’ belongings were stolen, and Wilkins’ cat was shot.


Avoiding Court Scrutiny


Hoping to snuff out the plaintiffs’ challenge, the Forest Service claimed that the deadline for its move had expired. This strategy initially worked, with two lower courts ruling against Wilkins and Stanton. Siding with the Forest Service, lower courts had rules that the plaintiffs’ suit violated the Quite Title Act, which has a 12-year statute of limitations, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority that the law in question is a non-jurisdictional claims-process rule.


“This legal hurdle is a frequent government tactic to avoid court scrutiny,” the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), which represents Wilkins and Stanton, said in a statement. “And the courts go along with it, closing the doors to property rights disputes.”


Those doors have now opened.


“The decision also reaffirms that property rights are indeed among the most important civil rights that Americans have, deserving equal status among all other constitutional protections and a full-throated defense in federal court,” PLF added.


Jeffrey McCoy, the PLF attorney spearheading the case, added, “The decision confirms that the government cannot manipulate procedural rules to prevent property owners from defending their constitutional rights.” It ws the 15th case PLF has won before the Supreme Court.


The ruling allows the two Montana landowners to pursue their case against the Forest Service, now that the agency’s effort to have the case dismissed has been blocked.