Leo Sheep Co. v. United States
440 U.S. 668 (1979)

  • Under the Union Pacific Act of 1862, the US partitioned parts of Wyoming into private sections and public lands in a checkerboard pattern, where every odd section was private and every even section was public.
    • The private sections were given to the railroads in return for building railroads. They were eventually sold off to various other people.
  • The Federal government dammed a river in Wyoming to create the Seminoe Reservoir. It was the only large body of water around, and so it began to attract boaters and swimmers. The Federal government came in and built a road across private land owned by Leo so that people could get to the reservoir.
  • Leo sued for an injunction, claiming that the Federal government had no right to build a road over their property.
    • The Federal government argued that since you couldn't get to the public lands without going over the private lands, Congress must have meant that there was an implied easement when they originally sold off the land.
  • The Trial Court found for Leo. The US appealed.
  • The Appellate Court reversed. Leo appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that when Congress gave the lands to the railroads, it implicitly reserved an easement to pass over the odd-numbered sections in order to reach the even-numbered sections held by the Federal government.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and found for Leo.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the Federal government does not have an implied easement to build a road across private lands.
    • The Court found that there is a common-law doctrine of easement by necessity, but since the Union Pacific Act didn't mention easements, then Congress must not have wanted there to be an easement.
      • The Court noted that (unlike a private person), the government has the ability to take land via eminent domain, and if they wanted a road there, they could just take it with that power. There was no need to have an easement by necessity.
        • Of course, eminent domain requires the government to pay for the land. Why should they have to pay when a private individual would be able to get the access for free?
    • The Court found that when the US originally gave the lands to the railroads, they included a number of conditions. However, they did not include any easements in the set of conditions. Therefore Congress must not have wanted there to be an easement.