- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

RICHMOND | When in the course of legal events a judge rejected Maine’s bid to reclaim a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence, the state appealed to a higher court, which heard oral arguments in the case Tuesday.

An attorney for Internet pioneer Richard L. Adams Jr. told the Virginia Supreme Court there’s no evidence the document was ever an official record kept by the town of Wiscasset, Maine, and that Mr. Adams is the rightful owner after buying it from a London book dealer in 2001 for $475,000.

But Maine’s attorney argued that Wiscasset never relinquished ownership of the document, which is one of about 250 copies printed in 1776 and distributed to towns throughout Massachusetts to be read to residents. Maine was part of Massachusetts then. Only 11 of the copies are thought to exist.

“There’s no evidence the town ever intended to transfer its ownership in this document to anyone,” Maine Assistant Attorney General Thomas Knowlton told the justices. “It’s certainly our belief this document is a public record under Maine law and a public record under common law.”

Fairfax County Circuit Judge R. Terrence Ney last February ruled in favor of Mr. Adams, the multimillionaire founder of UUNet Technologies Inc., the first commercial Internet service provider. Mr. Adams had filed suit to establish title to the document after learning that Maine was claiming ownership.

Mr. Adams’ attorney, Robert K. Richardson, said Wiscasset’s town clerk copied the text of the Declaration of Independence into the town’s record books on Nov. 10, 1776. It’s that transcription, not the document upon which it was based, that is the official town record, Mr. Richardson said.

Whether it was an official record or not, the document apparently was retained by Solomon Holbrook, Wiscasset’s town clerk from 1885 until his death in 1929. An estate auctioneer found it in a box of papers in the attic of Mr. Holbrook’s daughter’s home after she died in 1994.

“You can’t presume she came into possession of this any way other than from her father,” Maine state archivist David Cheever said in a telephone interview. “The logical thread is one clerk gives the records to his successor, but Holbrook died in office.”

Mr. Knowlton said town clerks in those days worked out of their homes - a likely explanation for why the document remained with the family instead of being passed along to the new clerk. Mr. Holbrook also was a jeweler.

The document changed hands a couple of times before Mr. Adams bought it. Maine officials became aware of the print’s existence after receiving an anonymous tip, Mr. Cheever said, and decided to try to get it back because of its historical significance.

“This was a communication to a community,” he said. “It wasn’t the Internet age. This was brought by either water or horseback to what was then the town of Pawnalborough,” which later changed its name to Wiscasset. “This document was, for this town, an anchor document.”

Mr. Cheever said only 11 of the approximately 250 copies printed by Ezekiel Russell in Salem, Mass., are known to still exist. One that originally belonged to the town of North Yarmouth also was obtained by a private collector but eventually was returned, he said.

Mr. Knowlton said if Maine wins the case, Mr. Adams can try to recoup his money from the London dealer. If the state loses, Mr. Knowlton said, it has no recourse because there are no federal issues in play that could be pursued to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices likely will issue their decision Feb. 27.

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