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Garfield County v. United States

Supreme Court of Utah

July 26, 2017

Garfield County, Kane County,
v.
United States of America and State of Utah, Appellants, and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Appellees.

         On Certification from the United States District Court for the District of Utah The Honorable David Nuffer, Clark Waddoups, and Robert J. Shelby Case Nos. 2:11-cv-1045 and 2:10-cv-1073

          Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Tyler R. Green, Solic. Gen., Anthony L. Rampton, Kathy A.F. Davis, Michael S. Johnson, T. Parker Douglas, John Robinson Jr., Asst. Atty's Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellants Garfield County and State of Utah Shawn T. Welch, Richard D. Flint, Ryan R. Jibson, Salt Lake City, Robert C. Van Dyke, Kanab, for appellant Kane County

          John W. Huber, U.S. Att'y, John K. Mangum, Asst. U.S. Att'y, Salt Lake City, John C. Cruden, Asst. Att'y Gen., Joseph Hosu Kim, Joanna K. Brinkman, David C. Shilton, Washington, D.C., for appellee United States of America

          Brent V. Manning, Alan C. Bradshaw, Jess M. Krannich, Mitchell M. Longson, Salt Lake City, Jeffrey M. Gould, Washington, D.C., Brett De Jarnette, John C. Dwyer, Heather Dunn Navarro, Palo Alto, CA, Robert B. Wiygul, Ocean Springs, MS, Stephen H.M. Bloch, Joseph J. Bushyhead, Salt Lake City, for appellee Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

          Troy L. Booher, Clemens A. Landau, Salt Lake City, for amici Taxpayer Association of Kane County, Ron Smith, and Jana Smith

          Hillary M. Hoffmann, South Royalton, VT, for amicus Natural Resources and Property Law Professors

          Heidi J. McIntosh, Denver, CO, for amicus Coalition to Protect America's National Parks and Park Rangers for Our Lands

          Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Justice Durham and Justice Himonas joined.

          Judge Voros filed a dissenting opinion, in which Judge Toomey joined.

          Having recused themselves, Associate Chief Justice Lee and Justice Pearce did not participate herein. Court of Appeals Judges J. Frederic Voros and Kate A. Toomey sat.

          OPINION

          Durrant, Chief Justice

         Introduction

         ¶ 1 This certified question emerges from a number of cases pending before several federal district courts concerning ownership of certain rights of way claimed by the State of Utah and several of its counties pursuant to Revised Statute 2477. The federal courts ask that we determine whether Utah Code section 78B-2-201(1) and its predecessor are statutes of limitations or statutes of repose. We hold that the plain language of both versions of the statute reveals them to be statutes of repose.[1] The application of this interpretation to the State's R.S. 2477 rights of way leads to the result that the State effectively and inevitably lost title to any such rights of way after seven years without any opportunity to prevent such loss. This result-the automatic expiration of the State's title to R.S. 2477 rights of way-is absurd and could not have been intended by the legislature, given that for most of R.S. 2477's history, no cause of action existed in the law to protect rights granted under R.S. 2477, and even after a cause of action was statutorily created, it was wholly contingent on the federal government's decision to dispute a claimed right of way. Because of the absurdity that results from applying section 201 and its predecessor as statutes of repose in this context, we construe these statutes as statutes of limitations with respect to R.S. 2477 right of way claims.

         Background

         ¶ 2 This case concerns the interrelationship of four separate statutes: Revised Statute 2477, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the Quiet Title Act, and Utah Code section 78B-2-201(1). The first statute, R.S. 2477, was enacted in 1866 to facilitate access to mining deposits located under federal lands. The statute provides "[t]hat the right of way for the construction of highways over public lands, not reserved for public uses, is hereby granted."[2]In short, R.S. 2477 is a "standing offer of a free right of way over the public domain."[3] On October 21, 1976, Congress repealed R.S. 2477 with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). Accordingly, if a claimant could prove that it had "accepted" a right of way prior to the repeal date, the claimant had an established and perfected title to the right of way. Under Utah law, "[a]cceptance of an R.S. 2477 right of way . . . requires continuous public use for a period of ten years."[4]

         ¶ 3 Although R.S. 2477 granted title to rights of way by operation of law-no suit or other action was required to establish title-a claimant can only protect its title to the right of way by filing suit against the United States under the federal Quiet Title Act, 28 U.S.C. section 2409a (QTA).[5] The QTA contains its own statute of limitations, providing state and county claimants twelve years to assert a claim once the cause of action has accrued.[6] Significantly, a claimant must wait until title is "disputed" before bringing a claim under the QTA.[7]

         ¶ 4 To protect their alleged title to certain rights of way, Kane County, Garfield County, and the State of Utah (collectively, State or State Parties) filed separate lawsuits in 2011 against the United States. In the proceedings giving rise to the certified question, Kane County, Garfield County, and the State claim 1, 510 rights of way. In addition to those proceedings, the State and various counties have initiated more than 20 separate cases to perfect title to several thousand more R.S. 2477 rights of way. There are accordingly now multiple cases pending before multiple judges of the Utah federal district court regarding at least 12, 000 claimed R.S. 2477 rights of way, with each right of way claim involving unique facts.[8]

         ¶ 5 On June 27, 2014, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), which acts as a limited permissive intervenor in the Kane County and Garfield County cases, filed a memorandum with the United States District Court in support of the United States' Motion for Partial Dismissal, arguing that Utah Code section 78B-2-201 and its predecessor are seven-year statutes of repose that began to run as to each individual right of way when the State first accepted the road pursuant to R.S. 2477. Because the State could not have obtained an R.S. 2477 right of way later than October 21, 1976-the date Congress enacted the FLPMA and repealed R.S. 2477-SUWA argued that the State was required to assert claims under the QTA no later than 1983, seven years after October 21, 1976. The federal district courts decided that section 201 and its predecessor could prove dispositive in the proceedings. Consequently, they certified to us the limited legal question of whether section 78B-2-201 and its predecessor are statutes of repose or statutes of limitations within this context.

         Standard of Review

         ¶ 6 As noted, this case comes to us by certified question emerging from a number of proceedings before several judges of the United States District Court for the District of Utah. "A certified question from the federal district court does not present us with a decision to affirm or reverse a lower court's decision; as such, traditional standards of review do not apply."[9] Accordingly, we merely answer the question presented, leaving "resolution of the parties' competing claims and arguments . . . up to the federal courts, which of course retain jurisdiction to decide [the] case."[10] We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(1) and article VIII, section 3 of the Utah Constitution.

         Analysis

         ¶ 7 The certified question asks whether Utah Code section 78B-2-201(1) and its predecessor are statutes of limitations or statutes of repose. The predecessor to section 201(1), which was in effect from the time it was enacted in 1872 until 2008, provided as follows:

[1] The state will not sue any person for or in respect to any real property, or the issues or profits thereof, by reason of the right or title of the state to the same, unless:
[a] such right or title shall have accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding for the same shall be commenced; or
[b] the state or those from whom it claims shall have received the rents and profits of such real property, or some part thereof, within seven years.[11]

         The legislature amended the statute in 2008 to read:

[1] The state may not bring an action against any person for or with respect to any real property, its issues or profits, based upon the state's right or title to the real property, unless:
[a] the right or title to the property accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding is commenced; or
[b] the state or those from whom it claims received all or a portion of the rents and profits from the real property within the immediately preceding seven years.[12]

         The certified question asks us to interpret these two versions of the statute and determine whether they should be construed as statutes of repose or statutes of limitations.[13]

         ¶ 8 Although not directly addressed in the certified question, two bills passed in 2015 bear on our decision. First, the legislature again amended section 201 to add a new subsection, though it left the remainder of the statute-including the portions relevant to our discussion today-unchanged. This new subsection states that "[t]he statute of limitations in this section runs from the date on which the state or those from whom it claims received actual notice of the facts giving rise to the action."[14] This amendment was expressly made retroactive to March 12, 1953.[15] The second bill passed in 2015 resulted in section 78B-2-118. This new statute states that "[a]ctions against the federal government regarding real property and that are subject to the federal Quiet Title Act . . . do not expire under this chapter."[16] This statute was also made retroactive to October 25, 1972.[17]

         ¶ 9 There are three main issues raised by the parties in response to the certified question: first, whether we should even address the certified question due to the possibility of issuing an advisory opinion; second, whether, using our normal tools of statutory interpretation, we should interpret section 78B-2-201 and its predecessor as statutes of limitations or statutes of repose; and third, if we interpret these statutes as statutes of repose, whether we should reform the statutes under our absurdity doctrine. We address each issue in turn and conclude that we should address the question on its merits, and that though the plain language of both iterations of the statute renders them statutes of repose, the result of applying such an interpretation to the State's R.S. 2477 rights of way works such an overwhelmingly absurd result that we construe the statutes as statutes of limitations as to such claims.

         I. We Will Answer the Certified Question, Leaving Resolution of How and Whether Our Interpretation Applies to the Underlying Cases to the Federal Courts

         ¶ 10 Prior to interpreting section 78B-2-201 and its predecessor, we first address whether we should decline to answer the certified question. The State has advanced several reasons why our interpretation of these statutes does not apply to the underlying case: (1) the 2015 bills amending section 201 and adding section 78B-2-118 are retroactive and control the litigation;[18] (2) section 78B-2-102 requires the courts to apply the QTA's twelve-year statute of limitations instead of the one found in section 201 and its predecessor;[19] (3) the limitation found within the statutes at issue applies only to suits by "the state" against a "person, " which excludes suits by counties against the federal government;[20] and (4) article XX, section 1 of the Utah Constitution precludes the application of either of the statutes at issue.[21] Thus, according to the State, because the determination of whether section 78B-2-201 and its predecessor are statutes of repose or statutes of limitations will not affect the outcome of the case for some or all of these reasons, we should avoid issuing an advisory opinion and refuse to answer the certified question. The United States and SUWA challenge each of the reasons propounded by the State, arguing that none of them justifies a refusal to answer the certified question. Although it appears that the arguments raised by each of the parties have some merit, the existence of arguments about the ultimate applicability of section 201 or its predecessor to the underlying cases in light of these other statutes or constitutional provisions-and hence the applicability of our interpretation of the actual statutes at issue- does not mean that we should refuse to answer the certified question.

         ¶ 11 "On certification, we answer the legal questions presented without resolving the underlying dispute."[22] Because traditional standards of review do not apply, we are not called upon to review the federal court's conclusions of law or fact.[23] The district courts involved in these cases stated in the Order of Certification that section 78B-2-201 and its predecessor were potentially controlling and dispositive of the R.S. 2477 cases. They did so even after receiving the State's suggestion of mootness based on section 118.[24]And although it is not clear whether the federal district courts had the opportunity to address all of the arguments raised by the State, the United States, and SUWA, those courts' conclusion that these statutes could be dispositive is a legal conclusion that we are not in a position to review on certification and must accept for purposes of answering the certified question.

          ¶ 12 With the exception of the question of whether the United States is a "person" for purposes of section 201 and its predecessor, [25] what the State is asking us to do in response to the certified question is to essentially ignore the specific question asked-a question of statutory interpretation-and instead address myriad questions about the future application of our interpretation. This is inappropriate.[26] Our job "is to resolve disputed questions of state law in a context and manner useful to the resolution of a pending federal case."[27] To be sure, we appropriately consider the specific circumstances and particular context of the underlying case when answering a certified question, which helps ensure that we are not issuing an abstract opinion on a matter of interest to the federal courts.[28] But though our answer should "facilitat[e] the disposition of the underlying federal case, " we have recognized "that our opinion on certification will [not] itself resolve the underlying federal case. The resolution of the parties' competing claims and arguments will be up to the federal courts, which of course retain jurisdiction to decide this case under the law as they see it."[29] Thus, although the district courts' "decision will be informed by our resolution of the state law issues presented, " "[t]hose courts retain the independent authority to decide whether and to what extent to apply our law or to recognize limitations on or caveats to it."[30]

         ¶ 13 Our recognition that the federal courts retain the authority to decide "whether . . . to apply our law, " especially when it intersects with federal law as it does here, [31] necessarily entails a recognition that our answer to a certified question may not always end up being dispositive. This has not prevented us from answering certified questions in the past, and it does not require us to decline to answer the question certified to us today.[32] Accordingly, we now turn to a discussion of the certified question: whether section 78B-2-201 and its predecessor are statutes of limitations or statutes of repose. And under the standard discussed above, we answer this question within the context of the particular circumstances in which the question arose-the State's claims to rights of way under R.S. 2477.

         II. The Plain Language of Both Iterations of the Statute Unmistakably Renders Them Statutes of Repose

         ¶ 14 The federal district courts have asked us to decide whether Utah Code section 78B-2-201 and its predecessor are statutes of limitations or statutes of repose. Section 201, prior to its amendment in 2015, [33] states in its entirety:

[1] The state may not bring an action against any person for or with respect to any real property, its issues or profits, based upon the state's right or title to the real property, unless:
[a] the right or title to the property accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding is commenced; or
[b] the state or those from whom it claims received all or a portion of the rents and profits from the real property within the immediately preceding seven years.[34]

         The predecessor to section 201 read as follows:

[1] The state will not sue any person for or in respect to any real property, or the issues or profits thereof, by reason of the right or title of the state to the same, unless:
[a]such right or title shall have accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding for the same shall be commenced; or
[b]the state or those from whom it claims shall have received the rents and profits of such real property, or some part thereof, within seven years.[35]

         The language found in subsection (1)(a) of both versions of the statute-"right or title . . . accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding [is] commenced"-controls this issue. The question is whether this language means that the State cannot assert a cause of action related to real property except within the first seven years after the accrual of its right or title to the property-a statute of repose-or whether it means that the State cannot bring suit except within seven years after the accrual of a cause of action based on its right or title to the real property-a statute of limitations.

         ¶ 15 "When interpreting a statute, it is axiomatic that this court's primary goal 'is to give effect to the legislature's intent in light of the purpose that the statute was meant to achieve.'"[36] In discerning this purpose, "[t]he best evidence of the legislature's intent is 'the plain language of the statute itself.'"[37] In general, "[w]here a statute's language is unambiguous and provides a workable result, we need not resort to other interpretive tools, and our analysis ends."[38] After reviewing the plain language of the two relevant versions of the statute, we conclude that they unmistakably operate as statutes of repose.

         ¶ 16 "Whether a statute that bars or terminates a claim for relief is a statute of limitations or a statute of repose depends on the nature of the statute and the manner in which it operates to cut off the legal right of a person to obtain a remedy for an injury."[39] We first described the difference between the two types of statutes in Berry ex rel. Berry v. Beech Aircraft Corp.[40] Prior to Berry, we used the terms almost interchangeably, without recognizing a difference between them.[41] In Berry, however, we clarified that

[a] statute of limitations requires a lawsuit to be filed within a specified period of time after a legal right has been violated or the remedy for the wrong committed is deemed waived. A statute of repose bars all actions after a specified period of time has run from the occurrence of some event other than the occurrence of an injury that gives rise to a cause of action. . . .
. . . . . . . . Therefore, a statute of repose may bar the filing of a lawsuit even though the cause of action did not even arise until after it was barred and even though the injured person was diligent in seeking a judicial remedy.[42]

         Accordingly, we distinguish statutes of limitations and statutes of repose by looking to the event that triggers the start of the statutory timeframe: if the trigger is the accrual of a cause of action, it is a statute of limitation, but if it is some other event, it is a statute of repose.[43]

         ¶ 17 Prior to 2008, the relevant language of section 201 stated that

The state will not sue any person for or in respect to any real property . . . by reason of the right or title of the state to the same, unless . . . such right or title shall have accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding for the same shall be commenced . . . .[44]

         The 2008 amendment made only small changes. It then read as it does now:

The state may not bring an action against any person for or with respect to any real property . . . based upon the state's right or title to the real property, unless . . . the right or title to the property accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding is commenced . . . .[45]

         Accordingly, the 2008 amendment made it clear that the "right or title" that must have "accrued within seven years before [the] action or other proceeding" was "right or title to the property" that was the basis for the state's claim.

         ¶ 18 It is clear from its language that the relevant portion of section 201-both pre- and post-2008 amendment-is a statute of repose.[46] Despite the differences in the language of the two versions of the statute, the key operative language is the same: the seven-year timeframe to assert a cause of action based on real property in each version of the statute begins to run when the State's "right or title to the property accrued."[47] Accordingly, both versions of the statute are statutes of repose because their limitation periods are not triggered by the accrual of a cause of action, as would be the case for a statute of limitations, but some other event-obtaining an interest in real property-that is not related to the time at which the State is able to assert a claim. Thus, section 201 and its predecessor are statutes of repose that cut off the State's ability to bring an action "for or with respect to any real property, . . . based upon the state's right or title to the real property, unless . . . the right or title to the property accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding is commenced."[48]

         ¶ 19 The State argues that if we interpret these statutes as statutes of repose, however, it will work such absurd results when applied in the R.S. 2477 cases that we are required to apply our absurdity doctrine and reform the statutes. As we discuss below, we agree and accordingly construe section 201 and its predecessor as statutes of limitations within the context of the State's R.S. 2477 claims.

         III. We Employ the Absurdity Doctrine and Construe Section 201 and Its Predecessor as Statutes of Limitations with Respect to the State's R.S. 2477 Rights of Way

         ¶ 20 Although section 201 and its predecessor are by their plain language statutes of repose, the State asks us to apply the absurdity doctrine to construe them as statutes of limitations. The State argues that applying these statutes as statutes of repose leads to the absurd result that it "automatically lost any interest it had in R.S. 2477 rights of way by [October 21, ] 1983"-the last date it could have asserted a QTA claim-"even if it could not possibly have filed suit to protect those interests before that date." In response, the United States and SUWA contend that the statutes do not lead to absurd consequences when applied to the State's right of way claims because the State could have filed suit to protect its R.S. 2477 roads before 1983, and, even if the State could not have filed such a suit, there is nothing absurd about "leaving title claims unresolved when doing so will have little to no effect on the practical day-to-day use of the roads at issue."

         ¶ 21 We agree with the State. Applying section 201 and its predecessor as statutes of repose would effectively deprive the State of its R.S. 2477 rights of way. As statutes of repose, the statutes would have been operating since 1872 to cut off the State's ability to protect rights of way that accrued since 1866-despite the fact that no mechanism to defend such property interests had been created judicially or legislatively until 1972. This is a result "so overwhelmingly absurd that no rational legislator could ever be deemed to have supported a literal application of [the statutes'] text."[49] Accordingly, we employ our absurdity doctrine and construe section 201 and its predecessor as statutes of limitations for purposes of the State's R.S. 2477 claims-a statutory construction that both avoids the absurd consequences at issue here and preserves the statutes as operative legislative enactments.[50]

          ¶ 22 As we concluded above, section 201 and its predecessor are by their plain language statutes of repose. Under the plain meaning rule, "where the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, our analysis [normally] ends."[51] But "[a]n equally well-settled caveat to the plain meaning rule" is the absurdity doctrine, which "states that a court should not follow the literal language of a statute if its plain meaning works an absurd result."[52] The literal language of a statute works an absurd result when the operation of the statute is "so overwhelmingly absurd that no rational legislator could ever be deemed to have supported a literal application of its text."[53] The absurdity doctrine recognizes that although "the plain language interpretation of a statute enjoys a robust presumption in its favor, it is also true that [a legislative body] cannot, in every instance, be counted on to have said what it meant or to have meant what it said."[54]

         ¶ 23 "[A]s is common to all rules of statutory construction, the guiding star of the absurd[ity] doctrine is the intent of the pertinent legislative body, which limits the application of this canon of construction."[55] Where a statute works an absurd result, and legislative history from the pertinent legislative body shows that the absurd result was unintended, [56] the absurdity doctrine preserves legislative intent by construing the statute in a way that ensures that the statutory text does not operate in an unintended, absurd manner.[57]

          ¶ 24 As noted above, section 201 prevents

[t]he state [from] bring[ing] an action against any person for or with respect to any real property . . . based upon the state's right or title to the real property, unless . . . the right or title to the property accrued within seven years before any action or other proceeding is commenced[.][58]

         Applied in this case, section 201 and its predecessor preclude any legal action with respect to the State's R.S. 2477 rights of way seven years after the State obtained right or title to those property interests. Because a property right that cannot be legally protected is only an ephemeral right at best, [59] these statutes effectively set an expiration date on every R.S. 2477 right of way obtained by the State at seven years from the day the State's title to the right of way was established by acceptance. Given the history of section 201, R.S. 2477, and the QTA, this absurd result could not have been intended by the legislature.

         ¶ 25 The Mining Act, which permitted the State to obtain title to rights of way under R.S. 2477, was enacted in 1866. The predecessor to section 201 was enacted in 1872. Prior to the enactment of the QTA in 1972, the State had no legal mechanism to protect its vested rights of way. Because the earliest the State could have raised a QTA claim was 1972, section 201 and its predecessor ensured that the only R.S. 2477 roads the State could have protected against federal intrusion under the QTA were those obtained in and after 1965- seven years before Congress enacted the QTA. Taken together, these statutes created a regime where the right to protect title to R.S. 2477 rights of way obtained prior to 1965 automatically expired with respect to the federal government before any legal mechanism (the QTA) existed that would have permitted the State to protect its vested title.

         ¶ 26 Thus, if the State gained a right of way in 1964, the predecessor to section 201 would by 1971 have deprived the State of any cause of action to protect that property interest against federal usurpation, and this despite the fact that the only cause of action that could ever be asserted by the State to protect that property interest would not be statutorily created until passage of the QTA in 1972, one year later. And this pattern of accrual and automatic expiration has been ongoing since 1872. In short, this distinctive interplay between the predecessor to section 201 and R.S. 2477 prior to the passage of the QTA has rendered an unknown number of R.S. 2477 roads-gained over a 93 year period-ephemeral, leaving the State as owner in name only with no legal means to protect its property interests from the very governmental body that granted them.

         ¶ 27 Not only does the unique interplay between section 201 or its predecessor and R.S. 2477 during this period lead to an absurd result-the accrual of ephemeral property rights-the history of the legislation "confirm[s] that the absurd application was indeed unintended by the legislature."[60] As previously noted, the predecessor to section 201, which is a statute of repose, was first enacted before a quiet title cause of action had been created that would permit the State to protect its R.S. 2477 roads against the federal government. The legislature simply could not have rationally intended to cut off the State's ability to protect its rights of way decades before any cause of action existed in the law to protect those interests from federal intrusion. Although it is not absurd for a statute of repose to cut off a cause of action that has not yet accrued, [61] a legislature could not intend the overwhelming absurdity of a statute of repose that cuts off a cause of action that has not yet been created either judicially or by statute as a legal remedy.

         ¶ 28 The absurd result created by application of section 201 and its predecessor to roads before 1965 is not ameliorated by the passage of the QTA. Even though the enactment of the QTA in 1972 established a legal remedy that would permit the State to protect its property rights from federal intrusion, section 201 and its predecessor-when interpreted as statutes of repose-render that remedy largely illusory. Before the State can bring a QTA cause of action against the United States, it must show that the federal courts have jurisdiction over the suit, which requires the federal government to dispute the State's title to the property.[62] This gives the federal government full control over the timing of litigation under the QTA because it can choose when to dispute title and thus choose when a QTA cause of action will accrue. Accordingly, it can merely delay any dispute over the State's R.S. 2477 roads until the statutes' seven-year limitation period has lapsed-again, effectively depriving the State of its property interests. Indeed, Kane County (a plaintiff in this case) recently had its QTA claims for certain R.S. 2477 rights of way dismissed by the Tenth Circuit because the United States had not yet disputed the State's title.[63] This means that over thirty years after section 201 or its predecessor cut off the State's ability to defend all R.S. 2477 property interests, Kane County still could not assert a QTA claim in federal court.[64] Thus, even with the passage of the QTA, which created a cause of action to protect title to R.S. 2477 rights of way, the idiosyncratic relationship between section 201 and its predecessor, R.S. 2477, and the QTA generates an overwhelmingly absurd result. In summary, when section 201 and its predecessor are applied as statutes of repose to the State's R.S. 2477 rights of way, the State automatically lost its right to protect such rights of way obtained prior to 1965 seven years after those rights of way accrued. And even with passage of the QTA in 1972, the State's ability to secure its property interests is wholly contingent on the federal government's decision to dispute the State's title-a dispute that the United States may well elect to raise only after the seven-year period prescribed by section 201 and its predecessor. The State's inability to protect the property interests granted to it by the federal government has, in turn, rendered the State's R.S. 2477 rights of way inherently ephemeral with respect to the United States; for a property interest that gives its possessor no defensible rights against an adverse party is a property interest in name only.[65] To be sure, statutes of repose often cut off a particular cause of action before it accrues-a non-absurd result. But for most of section 201's history, it operated to cut off a cause of action that had not yet been judicially or legislatively created-a patently absurd result. Ultimately, section 201 and its predecessor go beyond simply prohibiting a cause of action to effectively placing a seven-year lifespan on the State's R.S. 2477 property interests. This is an overwhelmingly absurd result that could not have been intended by the legislative body that originally enacted the predecessor to section 201.

         ¶ 29 The dissent, the United States, and SUWA resist this conclusion with several arguments. The dissent first argues that the absurd result identified by the majority-"that Utah would enjoy rights of way granted by the United States without a judicial remedy for quieting title to them against the United States"-"was the prevailing law nationwide for 106 years, from the passage of the Mining Act in 1866 until the passage of the Quiet Title Act in 1972."[66]The dissent further argues that, "[i]f that rule of law in fact mandated absurd results, surely in 106 years some court somewhere would have noticed."[67]

         ¶ 30 This argument fails for two reasons. First, the dissent is mistaken to suggest that, because a law has been in effect for some time, it is immune from an absurdity analysis. We commonly apply the absurdity doctrine to statutes that have been on the books for decades.[68] And the dissent fails to recognize the obvious explanation for why we have not previously reached the conclusion that we reach today: that the question before us-whether section 201 and its predecessor create an absurd result as applied to the State's R.S. 2477 rights of way-is one of first impression for this court. At no time in these statutes' history has a party presented a legal vehicle for answering this question. And as we have explained above, a plaintiff's ability to bring a valid suit under the QTA hinges on the ...


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