RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Descendants of one of the first U.S. Supreme Court justices won a legal fight Tuesday against the state of North Carolina over ownership of their ancestor’s historic papers, which could be worth millions.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that heirs of James Iredell own the documents loaned to the state archives more than 100 years ago.
A judge and statesman from Edenton, Iredell was nominated by President George Washington to the new nation’s Supreme Court in 1790. The collection also includes the papers of his son, James Iredell Jr., a North Carolina governor and U.S. senator from the 1820s and `30s.
Iredell’s heirs had previously offered a settlement to let the state keep the documents in exchange for $3 million. Lawyers for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resource argued unsuccessfully that the family’s claim to the papers had expired decades ago.
Willis Whichard was one of three former N.C. Supreme Court justices who filed a joint brief supporting the government’s case. Whichard, who examined the papers while writing a biography on the elder Iredell, said it would be a travesty if the family were to sell the historic records at auction.
“The loss is to future scholars,” Whichard said. “These papers are a treasure trove of information about life in the last half of the 18th century, both in North Carolina and nationally, and a window into the early judiciary of the country. The danger, of course, is if these papers go into private hands that they get scattered to the four winds.”
A lawyer for the descendants said it is not yet clear what the family intends to do with the documents.
Because the decision was unanimous, the case will only go to the North Carolina Supreme Court if the state petitions and the justices choose to hear it.
Born in Lewes, England, Iredell sailed to the American colonies at age 17 to seek his fortune following the death of his father. He got a job as a deputy collector with the customs service at the port of Edenton.
Despite being an employee of the crown, Iredell became one of North Carolina’s leading voices for independence from Great Britain. After the revolution, he pleaded with the state’s leaders to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
Iredell’s years on the U.S. Supreme Court involved riding a circuit of courthouses to hear cases. Due to the frequent travel, he wrote many letters to family and friends. He served until his death at age 48 in 1799, leaving behind a widow and three children.
Many of the family’s papers and manuscripts were eventually passed down to Iredell descendant Charles E. Johnson, a Raleigh cotton exporter who was president of Carolina Power and Light Company. In 1910, he loaned the documents to the North Carolina Historical Commission with a letter stating that he reserved “the right of recall and repossession at any time if I see fit.”
Johnson died in 1923 without asking for the documents to be returned. He made no mention of them in his will.
In 2008, Harvey Wilson Johnson of Raleigh found the 1910 correspondence between his ancestor and the state making clear the documents were intended as loan, not as a donation. He hired a lawyer and claimed ownership.
After the archives refused to return the documents, a group of eight descendants filed a lawsuit. The case headed to the appeals court after a Wake County judge ruled last year that the family had a right to reclaim the records.
In court, lawyers from the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper contended the family’s ownership of the documents died decades ago with Charles Johnson and his wife. To support their case, a state lawyer cited the legal precedent set by an 1857 court ruling that settled a family dispute over the ownership of a slave.
However, the three judge appeals panel rejected the state’s arguments, upholding the lower court ruling.
Raleigh attorney Dan Brady, who represented the Iredell descendants, said his clients are still interested in a settlement that would allow the records to remain in the archives, though he couldn’t say they’d still do it for the $3 million figure.
“We have no idea what they’re worth,” Brady said of the papers. “It’s kind of like the dog chasing the car. Now that we’ve got it, what do we do with it?”
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)