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In a pivotal ruling for Utah's legal battle to control thousands of routes crossing federal land, a divided Utah Supreme Court has held that these road claims have not run out of time under an obscure state law.
Joined by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, federal lawyers had argued the statute in question barred "quiet-title" claims after seven years, meaning that Utah's claim to more than 12,000 routes covering 35,000 miles would have been extinguished as long ago as 1983.
Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote that such a result would be "absurd" and deviate from whatever lawmakers intended when they passed the relevant law, known as a statute of repose.
The United States' arguments "would effectively deprive the State of its" claims to thousands of routes including some that may have existed and been used for decades, Durrant wrote in the ruling handed down Thursday.
The high court called such a result "completely nonsensical" and "so overwhelmingly absurd that no rational legislator could ever be deemed to have supported" it.
Durrant was joined by Justices Christine Durham and Deno Himonas.
A ruling the other way, in favor of the federal government's stance, could potentially have put an end to the litigation involving 22 separate lawsuits, one for each Utah county seeking title to these routes within their borders.
Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes applauded the ruling, calling it a "common-sense decision" that re-invigorates the road claims asserted under RS2477, a now-repealed frontier-era statute that gave counties rights of way to roads they cut across the public domain in an effort to encourage development in remote areas of the West.
Some of these disputed roads are important thoroughfares, but environmentalists say many are obscure tracks that serve no purpose other than to justify counties' efforts to push roads and motorize access into lands proposed for wilderness.
"The Court correctly recognized the absurdity of the federal government's arguments, which have now added two years of delay and taxpayer expense to the State's efforts to obtain the title to roads that federal law has long promised," Reyes said. "I hope the Court's decision convinces the United States now to work collaboratively and quickly with Utah and its Counties to resolve these title claims."
But the court's dissenters rejected the idea that the federal government's interpretation would have produced an absurd result, or even an uncommon one.
Appellate judges Frederic Voros and Kate Toomey sat in for Justices John Pearce and Thomas Lee, who had recused themselves from the case. While concurring with much of the majority opinion, Voros's dissent called it "the most expansive application of the absurdity doctrine in American law."
Voros noted that the allegedly absurd result actually reflects prevailing law nationwide from the passage of the Mining Act in 1866 until the passage of the Quiet Title Act in 1972.
"If that rule of law in fact mandated absurd results, surely in 106 years some court somewhere would have noticed," Voros wrote. "Yet no party cites, nor am I able to discover, any court questioning the rationality of the rule of law that we today declare absurd."
Thursday's ruling allows lawyers to get back to the arduous task of litigating the validity of the state's road claims that have been stewing in U.S. District Court since 2011. The state must demonstrate each road was open to public travel for 10 continuous years prior to 1976 when the Federal Land Management and Policy Act was passed, repealing RS2477.