Professor Wright resident expert on ‘rails-to-trails’
By Andrew Steadman (2L)
Professor Danaya Wright is UF Law’s – and maybe the country’s – resident expert on the federal government’s retained rights to railroad right-of-ways.
So-called “rails-to-trails” cases, in which disused railways are converted into walking and biking paths, become contentious when railroad property has fallen to private ownership and the government tries to re-assert its rights to the property. The ensuing disputes occasionally even make their way to the United States Supreme Court.
As a result of Wright’s status as the preeminent authority on the subject, the Department of Justice and the IRS are among the parties that have called her to serve as an expert witness. She has also worked pro bono writing amicus briefs for the Rails to Trails Conservancy.
“Because that’s my academic interest and I’ve written a bunch of articles about it, I naturally get called by a lot of the parties,” Wright said.
Wright decided to attend the oral arguments in the newest rails-to-trails case before the Supreme Court, Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust et al., v. United States, on Jan. 14.
“This is the second case before the Supreme Court involving railroad property rights when those rail corridors get converted to bike trails,” Wright said. “This case involves the property rights the federal government gave to the railroad under the 1875 General Railroad Right-of-Way Act and whether the government has retained any interest in that property right such that it can be converted to bike trails without takings liability.”
As she watched the oral arguments under the stern gaze of the courtroom ushers, Wright said it became clear the lawyers themselves were not fully versed in the intricacies of the rails-to-trails issue.
“The lawyers, they’re litigators, they’re advocates,” Wright said. “They’re not necessarily scholars on the nuances of the law.”
The resulting awkwardness translated to some tense moments in courtroom, including when Justice Antonin Scalia chided Steven J. Lechner, who was arguing for the rights of private property owners, for reading from his notes. Wright said the whole courtroom fell into silence as the lawyer struggled to compose himself.
“It’s gotten more media attention than the substance of the case itself,” Wright said.
Wright found she had to hold back from jumping into the arguments herself when the lawyers were stumped by the Justices’ incisive inquiries.
“I wanted to answer questions,” Wright said. “I wanted to raise my hand and say ‘Oh! I know the answer to that!’ I felt like Hermione Granger in Professor Snape’s class.”
Inspired by the events that transpired in the courtroom, Wright decided to set the record straight on some of the complexities of the issue that she felt had not been adequately addressed during the oral arguments.
“Because there were serious unanswered questions, I’ve written an article,” Wright said.
The first article, Wright said, will be published in the coming weeks by the Environmental Law Reporter. She has also crafted a more in-depth piece that she hopes will be released before May.