Don’t Crash Into Your Brother’s Truck

Wyoming’s John A. MacPherson has been on the front lines of some remarkable real estate battles

Published in 2013 Mountain States Super Lawyers Magazine

In 1979, John A. MacPherson, a lawyer out of Rawlins, Wyo., found himself at the U.S. Supreme Court. The government wanted to build a road across his client Leo Sheep Co.’s land to allow recreational use of a reservoir. “Our client, fellow by the name of Charlie Vivion, said, ‘Over my dead body,’” MacPherson says, “and we were off to the races.”

The case grew increasingly complicated. It involved delving into railroad land grants from the mid-1800s, which divided much of the West into a kind of checkerboard of federal and private lands. He recalls, “The government took the position that they had the right to cross at the corners where the red and black checkers would come together.”

Nevertheless, his team prevailed with a unanimous decision in their favor. Several years later, in a 1985 National Law Journal article, Justice William Rehnquist named Leo Sheep Co. his most memorable case because of its unique historical background.

“It’s a really insignificant percentage of cases that end up in the Supreme Court,” MacPherson says. “For a country lawyer to go back to Washington and have a case … obviously an interesting experience.”

Since graduating from law school at the University of Wyoming in 1967, MacPherson, 70, had developed a significant real estate practice, which includes ranching, agriculture, water and natural resources law.

MacPherson got his feet wet as a new lawyer practicing with Clarence Brimmer, a future Wyoming federal district judge, in his hometown, Rawlins.

“The day that he found out I passed the bar exam, he accepted the [Wyoming] Republican chairmanship and was off doing political things,” MacPherson says. “I was sort of thrown into the fire really, doing things that, if I had I gone with a large law firm, I would have been doing five years down the road.”

MacPherson took depositions and tried cases, even arguing solo in an automobile accident case against two attorneys, including well-known insurance defense attorney Al Pence. "I got my socks beat off,” he says. 

Working with Brimmer also gave MacPherson his first taste of working with ranchers—now some of his major clients.

One particularly memorable ranch case was Condict v. Condict, a battle between two brothers that began in the 1970s over the division and operations at the family ranch. Originally the case involved partitioning the ranch and an accounting action. Yet the feud grew over 18 years of continuous litigation and spawned over 25 separate cases because the Condicts took every opportunity to litigate against each other.

“Somebody took a shot at somebody, so that resulted in another trial. Two vehicles met on a bridge and neither one would give, so the bigger truck ran over the littler truck, and that resulted in litigation. There was a bankruptcy,” MacPherson says. “There’s a point where it is in everyone’s best interest to have those things settled. For whatever reason, we were never able to arrive at that point.”

While the underlying case ended in his side’s favor with a judgment in excess of  $1.5 million, fully satisfied in exchange for additional ranch lands, he jokes, “That was my cross in life.”

He now practices at MacPherson, Kelly & Thompson—whose attorneys include his wife, Catherine, and son, William.

Since the early 1970s, MacPherson has also owned several ranches himself— currently One Pine Ranch in Saratoga—true to to his family’s agricultural roots. “I don’t think there’s ever been a day when I didn’t own a horse,” he says.

Ranching has also helped him understand his clients, even as he’s seen many family ranches shift to larger company-run operations. “You’ve got to understand some of the issues that they’re facing and how they live; what it means to have to really work,” he says. “The old-time ranchers, they were worth in the millions, but if they had to lay their hands on $50,000, they could never do it. It was all tied up in land.”

In his current of counsel role, MacPherson tries to be selective with cases. He is working on several ranch sales. A recent highlight was the sale of New Mexico’s historic Bell Ranch to his client Silver Spur Land and Cattle Co., whose principal is billionaire John Malone, the largest individual landowner in the U.S.

Sold in August 2010 and covering 290,000 acres, Bell Ranch traces back to an 1824 land grant from Mexico and is considered the biggest single ranch sale in the West in 60 years. The Bell Ranch sale, says MacPherson, was an undertaking of enormous “size and complexity.” When it was finished, “it made for a crown jewel sort of experience.”

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