Mont. landowners prevail in SCOTUS property rights fight

By Pamela King | 03/28/2023 10:42 AM EDT

The U.S. Supreme Court, as photographed Sept. 2, 2021.

The U.S. Supreme Court, as photographed Sept. 2, 2021. Francis Chung/E&E News

The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed two Montana landowners to continue their legal fight against the Forest Service for allegedly changing the terms of access to a road that runs through their property near the Bitterroot National Forest.

In a 6-3 ruling that spanned ideological lines, justices sided with arguments by landowners Larry “Wil” Wilkins and Jane Stanton that they hadn’t run past a statutory deadline for their challenge. The ruling reverses a decision reached by two lower courts.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor led the majority and was joined by the two other members of the court’s liberal wing. Three members of the conservative wing — Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch — also voted for the landowners.


The case, Wilkins v. United States, involves a road on which the Forest Service had an easement allowing for public access. But Wilkins and Stanton said it was rarely used for that purpose until the agency in 2006 posted a sign on the road — “public access thru private lands” (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2022).

The arrival of that sign, attorneys for Wilkins and Stanton said, drew more visitors to the road. The landowners say they had trespassers who stole their property and, in one instance, shot Wilkins’ cat.

Justice Clarence Thomas penned a dissent, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.