Brott v. United States

Jury trial sought in rails-to-trails regulatory takings case

Cases > Separation of Powers > Brott v. United States
Lost: A federal court of appeals held that property owners don't have a right to a jury trial when the federal government takes their land.
Case Court: Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

Kevin Brott owns land in Muskegon, Michigan. In 1886, a railroad obtained a right-of-way easement across his land. When the railroad ceased operation, the easement terminated and full ownership of the land returned to the owner. The federal government, however, invoking the National Trails System Act and related regulations, nullified Brott’s right to his land and encumbered it with a new easement for a public recreational trail under the perpetual jurisdiction of a federal agency. Brott sued for compensation in the district court in Michigan and requested a jury to determine the amount. The court refused to hear his case and sent him to the Court of Federal Claims, an executive-branch court that does not allow jury trials. PLF supports Brott as amicus curiae.

Kevin Brott, joined by 20 other individual, family, and small business landowners, sued for compensation after the federal government took an easement over their land, converting an abandoned railroad corridor into a public recreational trail under the jurisdiction of the federal Surface Transportation Board. A federal statute grants the Court of Federal Claims jurisdiction to hear inverse condemnation claims against the federal government when the amount exceeds $10,000. These courts are authorized under Article I of the Constitution, which governs the Executive branch. It differs from Article III courts in that it does not have lifetime appointed judges and there is no opportunity for a jury trial. Brott filed a lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims as required but also sued in an Article III federal district court to challenge the constitutionality of the statute that requires him to forego a jury trial by seeking compensation in an Article I court.

PLF supports Brott’s challenge and filed amicus briefs in both the district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. PLF’s brief explores the history of jury trials in American jurisprudence, with a special focus on the strong traditional of jury trials in takings cases. The importance of jury trials was enshrined in the Seventh Amendment and the historical right to a jury in eminent domain cases should apply equally to the inverse condemnation context.

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What’s at stake?

  • Because the Constitution guarantees property owners the ability to litigate their Fifth Amendment right to compensation in an Article III court, the separation of powers prohibits Congress from conferring judicial power on non-Article III tribunals such as the Court of Federal Claims.
  • The institution of the jury has long protected citizens against overreaching government. Yet most suits against the federal government currently don’t get a jury. Article III courts should insist on performing their duty to protect individual liberty.

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