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Sunday, April 14, 2024
The Observer

Lessons learned from a random research trip

I am, at times, amazed by the rabbit holes into which I have fallen while at Notre Dame Law School. From comparing lawsuits with dating to using my canon law final paper as an excuse to reconsider mens rea reform, the opportunities for those rabbit holes to manifest have been plentiful. But perhaps the deepest rabbit hole I’ve gone down in my time at this institution so far has to do with the Montana case of Link v. State.

In an earlier piece, I registered my gratitude for the opportunity to study the law of remedies under Professor Samuel Bray. Link v. State was one of the cases we studied in that course. Here are the basic facts: the Link brothers made a contract with the State of Montana to do three things. First, they wanted to build a bunch of infrastructure improvements on the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park — most critically a set of shops at the top of a mountain. Second, they wanted to build a “mountain railroad” to get from outside the park to the bottom of that mountain. Third, they wanted to build a tram to get from the bottom of that mountain to its top, so that visitors could reach the entrance of the caverns without having to walk that whole distance. After finishing its construction, the Link brothers operated the tram and mountain railroad for about four years. Then they returned to the negotiating table with the state of Montana to trade their right to operate the tram and railroad for a continued royalty fee. The key provision in the agreement was that the state agreed to continue operating the tram and railroad. The Links wanted to make sure that people would continue to visit their shops that they continued to operate themselves, so that provision was critical to the renegotiated contract.

To make a long story short, when the railroad fell into disrepair, the state breached the contract, refusing to repair the tram and railroad because they were no longer cost-effective. The Links then sued the state, and after a series of procedural hurdles, the case eventually arrived at the Montana Supreme Court, which decided that the tram and railroad would need to be rebuilt. That’s what makes this case get in the casebooks: while courts will often award this remedy, called “specific performance,” for things like land purchases or the sale of goods, it’s much rarer for a court to make a party rebuild a thing. And that would be the end of this mountain railroad saga, but for one inconvenient footnote in my casebook: even after the court ordered them to do so, the state never rebuilt the railroad.

As much of a rabbit hole as I knew this would turn into, I knew I needed to discover the answer to this question, and so I asked Professor Bray to supervise a directed reading on this case. As I continued my investigation, I developed two hypotheses as to what was going on in the background of this case: either the state ignored the court order, or the Links and the state arrived at a post-judgment settlement. A research librarian from the State of Montana provided me with a very useful lead to determine which of my hypotheses was right: if a post-judgment settlement happened, the recorder’s office in Jefferson County, where the caverns are located, would likely have a record of it. But there was just one problem. The recorder’s office could not provide assistance in locating that record online for records dating back to before 1980. Since Link was decided in 1979, I would have had to go in person to check.

So, of course, I went in person to check. Just last week, I took a trip to Butte to find the evidence I needed to write my paper, and I just so happened to fall in love with the charm of this area of Montana along the way. From the statue of Our Lady of the Rockies, the fourth-tallest statue of anything in the United States situated atop the Continental Divide and overlooking the entire town, to the hospitality of the Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder’s Office in providing me with a wide-open space to complete this research and full access to the relevant county deed records — a major shoutout to Ginger Kunz, Stephanie Colletti and the rest of the team at the Clerk and Recorder’s office for this assistance — our Heavenly Father was making his presence clearly known to me throughout the trip.

It was the odyssey of getting to the recorder’s office in Boulder, Montana, though, that I will perhaps remember most of all. Boulder and Butte are about 40 minutes apart. This meant that the taxi services in Butte were not willing to transport passengers that long of a way or for that long of a time. In theory, Uber and Lyft were both amenable to me booking a ride-share, but when push came to shove, both services reneged, likely for lack of drivers in the area. And while I thought I had found a bus route that would get me where I needed to be, I misread time zones while booking, and the bus departed two hours before I thought it was going to. I was in a pickle. And then, when I asked the incredible front desk staff at my hotel, the Butte Hampton Inn, for advice, they sprung into action. The assistant manager’s father had given people rides of this sort before. After a quick check to make sure he was available, he graciously provided me with a ride to Boulder to find the information I needed, then back to Butte to catch the first leg of my flight back to South Bend. Judy at the front desk, the assistant manager Elisa and her father Anselmo who gave me a ride have my deepest gratitude, and it is because of them and all the rest of those who aided me on this trip to Butte that I will be able to write the 10,000-word research paper that will capstone my directed reading on this wild, convoluted case, bringing another research journey of mine to its close.

What lessons can we learn from this adventure of mine? I can think of three. First: if something you’re working on or studying inspires you to go down a rabbit hole, pursue it, for you never know what treasures you will find along the way. Second: taking a trip somewhere you’ve never been in your life for research may be a ridiculously crazy idea, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t follow through; sometimes, you might just fall in love with that new place. And finally, God sometimes puts people in our lives at just the right time to remind us that he and he alone can provide what we need. I hope that in these weeks to come, a rabbit hole comes along and blesses your life with unexpected discoveries in just the way that this case, this trip, and these people in Montana have blessed my own.

Devin is a member of the Notre Dame Law School’s class of 2023. Originally from Farwell, Michigan, he is a 2020 graduate of Michigan State University’s James Madison College. In his free time, he sings with the Notre Dame Folk Choir and discusses the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. Inquiries into his surplus of law journal articles and note ideas can be directed to dhumphr2@nd.edu or @DevinJHumphreys on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.