Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Maine to Appeal Declaration Decision

I thought I'd look this morning and see if there were any updates on a case I posted about back in early December: the state of Maine had sued a Virginia man in an attempt to force the return of a 1776 printing of the Declaration of Independence (all the backstory is here). The trial in Fairfax County was set for 15 January, but I hadn't - until this morning - been able to find any discussion of what happened.

Portland's WMTW reports today that the Virginia judge ruled last month in favor of Richard L. Adams, Jr., the current owner of the Declaration, but that Maine officials have decided to appeal the ruling. I haven't yet been able to figure out how to pull up the case in the Virginia court system database so I don't have any further information than that just yet - but as soon as I can find anything, I'll post more.

[Update: Still don't have the text, but Everett Wilkie found another news piece about the case in the 28 February issue of the Wiscasset Newspaper.

Long excerpt: "Several factors hurt Maine's case. One was the testimony from Maine's own expert witness, Albert H. Whitaker, Jr. who said the 'broadsides were not typically kept.' The court found that Maine had not proved its public record statute applied in this case, and even if it did, the statute defines public records as 'received and maintained' by a municipality. 'Whether the Pownalborough Print was 'maintained' by Pownalborough or Wiscasset has not been conclusively established here,' the court said.

"Maine tried to prove that the print was kept by the town clerk because of the manner in which it was folded, the 'docketing' on the back of the print, and the fact that Sol Holbrook was the town clerk and the print was found in his daughter's attic. Specialists in colonial era documents from Sotheby's testified that they had seen between 80 and 100 broadsides of the Declaration of Independence, and that all of them were folded because of the odd size of the paper, but not necessarily because they were kept by town clerks. Another expert witness testified that 'anyone could have made the docketing entries, and that one docketing struck him as incorrect because it identified it as a 'warrant,' when in fact, it was not a warrant.'

"Maine argued that because the Pownalborough Print was not one of the many town documents recorded in the town book, 'it must have been wrongfully removed.'

"But the court found that such records of documents - 'an index, in effect of what was retained - were presumably passed from clerk to clerk. Any clerk doing an inventory of the town records would have known which records were missing by looking at the town book. If the original print was to be retained as an official town record, then, at some point, some clerk receiving the book without also receiving the broadside would have realized that it was missing. Yet, Maine presented no evidence that any town clerk ever realized the Pownalborough Print was not among the town records, and, as a result, sought it out. The print was never believed 'missing' until Maine learned of its sale.'

"Maine tried to prove ownership because it was found in the attic of town clerk Sol Holbrook's daughter. However, the court said since Sol Holbrook never lived in the house where the print was found, there was no evidence this was true.

"And, even if Sol Holbrook had once had it in his possession, the court said, 'It still begs the ultimate question… whether Sol Holbrook gave to someone a town record as opposed to a discarded broadside.'"

Without having read the full text, the ruling actually seems quite fair to me. I'll be interested to see what grounds Maine chooses to appeal on.]

[Further update: A colleague's forwarded me another local newspaper story, this one from the Lincoln County News. Another very interesting bit from the court's ruling: "The State of Maine introduced no evidence that any applicable statute in effect in 1776 required a state or town to retain broadsides generally or the Pownalborough print specifically. In fact, the Order printed on the Pownalborough print only requires it be read by the ministers of each parish and then delivered to the town clerks so that the clerks could record the words into the town books." Such a recording was made 10 November, 1776.

"The court reasoned under Virginia law, Maine as the party not possessing the copy had to bear the burden of proof that the print was 'converted' from its rightful owner." Maine's claims failed to meet this burden, the court ruled.]

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