Gubernatorial papers written during the Civil War era were not property of the State of South Carolina because there was no law—at the relevant time of writing—conferring ownership to the state.
This case concerned the ownership of papers from the administrations of two governors of South Carolina during the Civil War. Debtor Thomas Law Willcox (Plaintiff) sued in United States Bankruptcy Court for a declaratory judgment that the papers were part of his estate. Defendant South Carolina contended that the papers were public property. The bankruptcy court held for the State. The district court reversed, holding that the State failed to establish that the papers constituted public property under South Carolina law of the Civil War era.
Were Civil War-era gubernatorial papers property of the state?
No. At the relevant time (when the gubernatorial papers were written), South Carolina law did not provide for gubernatorial papers to automatically confer ownership to the state. The State therefore failed to establish superior title.
The State failed to establish that South Carolina law at the relevant time treated gubernatorial papers as public property. The court further held that the state was barred from asserting an ownership interest in the documents due to the running of the statute of limitations and staleness.