The Fight Over the Bill of Rights

Michael Stratton battles with the state of North Carolina to protect a client’s right to personal property

Published in 2006 Connecticut Super Lawyers — February 2006

Mike Stratton has a client who claims he has been subject to an illegal seizure and has been denied the right to a jury trial, while suffering violations of other liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Coincidentally, the case concerns the Bill of Rights itself.

Since 2003, Stratton has represented New Haven real estate mogul and antiques collector Robert V. Matthews, trying to convince the North Carolina courts that Matthews is the rightful owner of that state’s original copy of the Bill of Rights.

It’s unfamiliar territory for Stratton, a plaintiff ’s trial lawyer. He has made his career in medical malpractice and personal injury work, and at 40, has dozens of multimillion-dollar settlements and verdicts to his name. But when Matthews asked Stratton to represent him, the trial lawyer couldn’t resist. “I couldn’t believe what the government and the judiciary had done to extract this document. It was a complete abuse of executive and judicial power,” he says. “And tilting at those kinds of windmills is always fun.”

The case has a lengthy legal and historic past. Each of the original 13 colonies had its own copy of the Bill of Rights, but in 1865, North Carolina’s was missing. After the Civil War, a Union soldier presumably tucked the document into his bags during the sacking of Raleigh and returned with his souvenir to Tippecanoe, Ohio. The soldier sold it to an Ohio lawyer for $5, whose descendants tried to sell it in 1991. After verifying the document’s authenticity — and learning that it could fetch in the tens of millions of dollars — Matthews bought it along with Connecticut antiques dealer Wayne Pratt. The men each paid $100,000. The pair attempted to sell it to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in 2003, but the buyer turned out to be an FBI agent, who seized the Bill of Rights and returned it to the state of North Carolina.

Stratton can’t talk about the case without a degree of agitation creeping into his voice. He excitedly enumerates the grievances he has wanted to lay before a jury for years. “The sting was a move to get the document into [U.S. District Judge Terrence] Boyle’s chambers,” says Stratton. Boyle had signed the warrant authorizing the FBI sting, a move which was the first of several judicial abuses in the case, Stratton maintains. “You can’t sign a seizure warrant in North Carolina to extract a document from Pennsylvania,” he says.

In August, Boyle ordered federal marshals to turn the document over to the state of North Carolina. At a statehouse ceremony following Boyle’s decision, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley signed a receipt accepting possession of the Bill of Rights. After the ceremony, the document was boxed up and escorted by police to the North Carolina State Archives, where it will undergo cleaning in preparation for public display in the state Museum of History.

When the document was taken from North Carolina 140 years ago, Stratton says, North Carolina had seceded from the Union so it wasn’t even that confederate state’s Bill of Rights. “North Carolina completely abandoned the Bill of Rights in 1862 and created its own confederate bill of rights. [The U.S. Bill of Rights] represented everything that state hated,” says Stratton. In addition, when the soldier took it, it was not a valued document and there was no law prohibiting it, argues Stratton. And after the Civil War, no law existed to compel the return of public documents to the Southern states.

Complicating an already complex case, Wayne Pratt, the antiques dealer who purchased the document with Matthews, renounced his ownership of the document. Stratton believes Pratt did this to avoid the threat of criminal prosecution.

“I’m asking for return of the property,” says Stratton. Boyle has twice ruled the document is North Carolina’s property, and Stratton has twice appealed to the Fourth Circuit. He is waiting for a decision from the second appeal.

“I think we’ll win, even in front of a North Carolina jury,” says Stratton, beginning to slip into language that is sure to be in his closing argument — if he gets the chance to deliver one.

“We get accused of trying to take away North Carolina’s history and a lot of [other] horrible things, but this is what America is all about,” he says. “It’s about the protection of private property rights, and preventing the government from interfering with the right of people to enjoy the fruits of their labor.”

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