Garfield County v. United States, 072617 UTSC, 20150335

Docket Nº:20150335
Opinion Judge:Durrant, Chief Justice
Party Name:Garfield County, Kane County, v. United States of America and State of Utah, Appellants, and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Appellees.
Attorney:Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Tyler R. Green, Solic. Gen., Anthony L. Rampton, Kathy A.F. Davis, Michael S. Johnson, T. Parker Douglas, John Robinson Jr., Asst. Atty's Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellants Garfield County and State of Utah Shawn T. Welch, Richard D. Flint, Ryan R. Jibson, Salt Lake C...
Judge Panel:Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Justice Durham and Justice Himonas joined. Judge Voros filed a dissenting opinion, in which Judge Toomey joined. Having recused themselves, Associate Chief Justice Lee and Justice Pearce did not participate herein. Court of Appeals...
Case Date:July 26, 2017
Court:Supreme Court of Utah
 
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2017 UT 41

Garfield County, Kane County,

and

State of Utah, Appellants,

v.

United States of America

and

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Appellees.

No. 20150335

Supreme Court of Utah

July 26, 2017

On Certification from the United States District Court for the District of Utah The Honorable David Nuffer, Clark Waddoups, and Robert J. Shelby Case Nos. 2:11-cv-1045 and 2:10-cv-1073

Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Tyler R. Green, Solic. Gen., Anthony L. Rampton, Kathy A.F. Davis, Michael S. Johnson, T. Parker Douglas, John Robinson Jr., Asst. Atty's Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellants Garfield County and State of Utah Shawn T. Welch, Richard D. Flint, Ryan R. Jibson, Salt Lake City, Robert C. Van Dyke, Kanab, for appellant Kane County

John W. Huber, U.S. Att'y, John K. Mangum, Asst. U.S. Att'y, Salt Lake City, John C. Cruden, Asst. Att'y Gen., Joseph Hosu Kim, Joanna K. Brinkman, David C. Shilton, Washington, D.C., for appellee United States of America

Brent V. Manning, Alan C. Bradshaw, Jess M. Krannich, Mitchell M. Longson, Salt Lake City, Jeffrey M. Gould, Washington, D.C., Brett De Jarnette, John C. Dwyer, Heather Dunn Navarro, Palo Alto, CA, Robert B. Wiygul, Ocean Springs, MS, Stephen H.M. Bloch, Joseph J. Bushyhead, Salt Lake City, for appellee Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Troy L. Booher, Clemens A. Landau, Salt Lake City, for amici Taxpayer Association of Kane County, Ron Smith, and Jana Smith

Hillary M. Hoffmann, South Royalton, VT, for amicus Natural Resources and Property Law Professors

Heidi J. McIntosh, Denver, CO, for amicus Coalition to Protect America's National Parks and Park Rangers for Our Lands

Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Justice Durham and Justice Himonas joined.

Judge Voros filed a dissenting opinion, in which Judge Toomey joined.

Having recused themselves, Associate Chief Justice Lee and Justice Pearce did not participate herein. Court of Appeals Judges J. Frederic Voros and Kate A. Toomey sat.

OPINION

Durrant, Chief Justice

Introduction

¶ 1 This certified question emerges from a number of cases pending before several federal district courts concerning ownership of certain rights of way claimed by the State of Utah and several of its counties pursuant to Revised Statute 2477. The federal courts ask that we determine whether Utah Code section 78B-2-201(1) and its predecessor are statutes of limitations or statutes of repose. We hold that the plain language of both versions of the statute reveals them to be statutes of repose.1 The application of this interpretation to the State's R.S. 2477 rights of way leads to the result that the State effectively and inevitably lost title to any such rights of way after seven years without any opportunity to prevent such loss. This result-the automatic expiration of the State's title to R.S. 2477 rights of way-is absurd and could not have been intended by the legislature, given that for most of R.S. 2477's history, no cause of action existed in the law to protect rights granted under R.S. 2477, and even after a cause of action was statutorily created, it was wholly contingent on the federal government's decision to dispute a claimed right of way. Because of the absurdity that results from applying section 201 and its predecessor as statutes of repose in this context, we construe these statutes as statutes of limitations with respect to R.S. 2477 right of way claims.

Background

¶ 2 This case concerns the interrelationship of four separate statutes: Revised Statute 2477, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the Quiet Title Act, and Utah Code section 78B-2-201(1). The first statute, R.S. 2477, was enacted in 1866 to facilitate access to mining deposits located under federal lands. The statute provides "[t]hat the right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted."2In short, R.S. 2477 is a "standing offer of a free right of way over the public domain."3 On October 21, 1976, Congress repealed R.S. 2477 with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). Accordingly, if a claimant could prove that it had "accepted" a right of way prior to the repeal date, the claimant had an established and perfected title to the right of way. Under Utah law, "[a]cceptance of an R.S. 2477 right of way . . . requires continuous public use for a period of ten years."4

¶ 3 Although R.S. 2477 granted title to rights of way by operation of law-no suit or other action was required to establish title-a claimant can only protect its title to the right of way by filing suit against the United States under the federal Quiet Title Act, 28 U.S.C. section 2409a (QTA).5 The QTA contains its own statute of limitations, providing state and county claimants twelve years to assert a claim once the cause of action has accrued.6 Significantly, a claimant must wait until title is "disputed" before bringing a claim under the QTA.7

¶ 4 To protect their alleged title to certain rights of way, Kane County, Garfield County, and the State of Utah (collectively, State or State Parties) filed separate lawsuits in 2011 against the United States. In the proceedings giving rise to the certified question, Kane County, Garfield County, and the State claim 1, 510 rights of way. In addition to those proceedings, the State and various counties have initiated more than 20 separate cases to perfect title to several thousand more R.S. 2477 rights of way. There are accordingly now multiple cases pending before multiple judges of the Utah federal district court regarding at least 12, 000 claimed R.S. 2477 rights of way, with each right of way claim involving unique facts.[8]

¶ 5 On June 27, 2014, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), which acts as a limited permissive intervenor in the Kane County and Garfield County cases, filed a memorandum with the United States District Court in support of the United States' Motion for Partial Dismissal, arguing that Utah Code section 78B-2-201 and its predecessor are seven-year statutes of repose that began to run as to each individual right of way when the State first accepted the road pursuant to R.S. 2477. Because the State could not have obtained an R.S. 2477 right of way later than October 21, 1976-the date Congress enacted the FLPMA and repealed R.S. 2477-SUWA argued that the State was required to assert claims under the QTA no later than 1983, seven years after October 21, 1976. The federal district courts decided that section 201 and its predecessor could prove dispositive in the proceedings. Consequently, they certified to us the limited legal question of whether section 78B-2-201 and its predecessor are statutes of repose or statutes of limitations within this context.

Standard of Review

¶ 6 As noted, this case comes to us by certified question emerging from a number of proceedings before several judges of the United States District Court for the District of Utah. "A certified question from the federal district court does not present us with a decision to affirm or reverse a lower court's decision; as such, traditional standards of review do not apply."9 Accordingly, we merely answer the question presented, leaving "resolution of the parties' competing claims and arguments . . . up to the federal courts, which of course retain jurisdiction to decide [the] case."10 We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(1) and article VIII, section 3 of the Utah Constitution.

Analysis

¶ 7 The certified question asks whether Utah Code section 78B-2-201(1) and its predecessor are statutes of limitations or statutes of repose. The predecessor to section 201(1), which was in effect from the time it was enacted in 1872 until 2008, provided as follows: [1] The state will not sue any person for or in respect to any real property, or the issues or profits thereof, by reason of the right or title of the state to the same, unless:

[a] such right or title shall have accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding for the same shall be commenced; or

[b] the state or those from whom it claims shall have received the rents and profits of such real property, or some part thereof, within seven years.11

The legislature amended the statute in 2008 to read: [1] The state may not bring an action against any person for or with respect to any real property, its issues or profits, based upon the state's right or title to the real property, unless:

[a] the right or title to the property accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding is commenced; or

[b] the state or those from whom it claims received all or a portion of the rents and profits from the real property within the...

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