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The legal career of Ward Hunt peaked when he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873. Hunt held a seat on the High Court for nine years, until January 1882. Although he was well liked and respected as a diligent lawyer and jurist, Ward's tenure on the Court was unspectacular and marked by a forced retirement.
Hunt was born June 14, 1810, in Utica, New York, to Montgomery Hunt and Elizabeth Stringham Hunt. He studied at the Oxford Academy, in England and the Geneva Academy, in Switzerland. In 1828 he graduated with honors from Union College, in Schenectady, New York. He attended law school in Litchfield, Connecticut. He returned to Utica to work in a local law office, and was admitted to the bar in 1831.
Hunt married Mary Ann Savage in 1837, and they raised three children until her death in 1845. Eight years later he married Maria Taylor. With his partner, Hiram Denio, Hunt ran a successful law practice in Utica for thirty-one years. While practicing law Hunt became active in politics. He supported the policies of Andrew Jackson, who defended the interests of the middle class and served two terms as president. In 1838 Hunt was elected to the New York legislature, where he served one term, and in 1844 he was elected mayor of Utica.
In the 1840s Hunt came to differ with the Democratic Party when he opposed the expansion of slavery and the annexation of Texas. In 1848 Hunt supported the Free-Soil presidential candidacy of ex-Democrat and ex-president Martin Van Buren, who was defeated. Hunt ran for a spot on the New York Supreme Court in 1853, but he lost the election, a result that observers attributed to his defection from the Democratic party. In 1855 Hunt helped to form the Republican Party in the state of New York. As a Republican he was elected to the New York Court of Appeals in 1865.
After three years on the New York Court of Appeals, Hunt was promoted to chief justice. A year later, in 1869, the New York court system was reorganized by an amendment to the state constitution, and Hunt was named commissioner of appeals. He held that position for three years, until January 1873, when he replaced fellow New Yorker samuel nelson as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hunt had strong ties to the Republican party, and he had risen in the judicial ranks along with the party. At that time the Republican party promoted expansive federal powers. These powers were critical to the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederate forces in the Civil War. However, by the mid-1870s, the nation's appreciation of federal power had waned, and the judiciary began to emphasize the rights of the states. Perhaps as a result of this shift, Hunt, with his Republican views, authored few major opinions.
Hunt delivered his most memorable opinion in United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. (2 Otto) 214, 23 L. Ed. 563 (1875). In Reese the High Court struck down parts of the Enforcement Act of 1870, a federal act passed to ensure that African Americans would be allowed to vote. The act had been passed by Congress pursuant to the Fifteenth Amendment, which provides, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Reese was brought by the U.S. government against two inspectors at a municipal election in Kentucky, alleging that they had refused to receive and count the vote of William Garner, an African American.
According to the majority in Reese, the Fifteenth Amendment did not confer on all adult citizens the right to vote. Rather, it merely prevented the state and federal governments from denying the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Therefore, it
was not within the power of the federal government to require that states give the vote to all adult citizens. Because parts of the Enforcement Act did not limit the application of criminal penalties to wrongful refusals based on race, the Court ruled that those parts unconstitutionally infringed on the powers of the states.
Hunt was the only dissenting justice. He argued that the Fifteenth Amendment was intended to confer on all persons the same political rights given to white persons. The guarantee of the right to vote, according to Hunt, was one of those rights. He declared that the persons affected in the case "were citizens of the United States" and that the subject of the case "was the right of these persons to vote, not at specified
elections or for specified officers, not for federal officers or for state officers, but the right to vote in its broadest terms." Hunt mournfully concluded that the majority's holding brought "to an impotent conclusion the vigorous amendments on the subject of slavery."
Hunt's defense of African American rights appeared to be short-lived. In another case dealing with the Enforcement Act and decided the same month as Reese, he sided with the majority in refusing to enforce the rights of African Americans. In United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. (2 Otto) 542, 23 L. Ed. 588 (1875), approximately one hundred defendants were alleged to have assaulted two African American men in an attempt to keep the men from voting in a Louisiana state election. This assault violated provisions of the Enforcement Act that made it a federal offense for persons to band together to prevent a person from exercising any right guaranteed by the Constitution or federal law.
The defendants were charged with violations of the Enforcement Act and convicted at trial, but their convictions were overturned by a U.S. circuit court. On appeal by the United States, the Supreme Court held that legislation concerning the right to free assembly under the First Amendment was a matter reserved to the states, not to the federal government, and that Congress did not have the right to pass legislation on the matter. In response to the federal government's argument that in this case the mob had intended to prevent the two men from voting on account of their race, the Court declared, "[W]e may suspect that race was the cause of the hostility; but it is not so averred." Hunt could have dissented based on the same reasoning he used in his dissent in Reese, but he did not.
Hunt's failure to dissent in the Cruikshank case can be explained, in part, by his devotion to precedent. Hunt firmly believed that cases should be decided in accordance with the reasoning employed in previous cases. Because the Court in Reese had already struck down portions of the Enforcement Act, further attempts to prosecute under the act would meet a similar fate.
Hunt fell ill with gout in 1877 and missed many Court sessions. In January 1879 he suffered a paralytic stroke that left him temporarily speechless and permanently disabled on one side of his body. Hunt became too sick to function as a justice, but he refused to resign because he had not served long enough to qualify for a pension. In addition, Hunt's sponsor, Senator Roscoe Conkling, of New York, was quarreling with President Rutherford B. Hayes, and Hunt did not want to let Hayes appoint Hunt's successor to the Court. Finally, three years after his stroke, Congress passed a special retirement bill that gave Hunt a pension if he agreed to resign within thirty days. Hunt resigned in January 1882, on the day the bill became law. He died March 24, 1886, in Washington, D.C.
Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. 1992."Ward Hunt." In The Supreme Court of the United States: Its Beginnings and Its Justices, 1790–1991. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.
Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. 1995. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.