Friday, February 27, 2009

VA Supreme Court Rules for Collector in Declaration Case

As expected, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled today that collector Richard Adams, Jr. can keep his copy of a 1776 Declaration of Independence broadside (Salem: E. Russell) claimed by the state of Maine. I've posted background on the case here, and the most recent news we had was from when the case was argued before the state Supreme Court back in January.

In a 19-page ruling [PDF], the court upheld a trial court's February 2008 decision that Maine had no right to the document, since the state had failed to prove that the Declaration had ever officially been a town record.

Maine's state archivist, David Cheever, said he found the court's ruling "incredible," adding "To us, it's a public document. It was then. It is now. ... The unfortunate result is a public record that we believe rightfully belongs to the people of Maine is now in the hands of a private collector in Virginia."

Adams' attorney successfully argued that the town clerk's copy of the Declaration made in the town record books serves as the "official" record, since the Massachusetts Executive Council's order accompanying the Declaration "directed the town clerks to record the Declaration’s text in their respective town record books 'to remain as a perpetual Memorial thereof.' Neither the Executive Council’s order nor any other law directed the town clerks regarding the proper disposition of the broadsides after their contents were transcribed in the town record books."

The supreme court agreed with the trial court that the broadside "did not meet the common law definition of a 'public record' because a public officer did not create the print." They write: "The fact that the Executive Council authorized Russell to print the broadsides did not transform his employment status from that of a private printer to one of a public officer. Russell was not executing the duties of public office at the time he printed the broadsides. ... the duty of the town’s clerk to create a public record of the Declaration emanated from the Executive Council’s order directing that the clerks of the various towns record the text of the Declaration in their town books 'there to remain as a perpetual Memorial thereof.' This order of the Executive Council reflected the importance of the clerks’ acts of transcription and the fact that the written entries they created were to be the perpetual record of the Declaration in the various town books."

Finally, the court refuses to examine the question of whether the fact that the Declaration was found in the home of a former town clerk means that it was unlawfully removed from the town's possession (and thus could be returned even if it wasn't a 'public record').

So that's it for this case. There is no further appeal.

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