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Hunt, Ward

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Birth: June 14, 1810, Utica, New York.

Education: Graduated from Union College, 1828; studied law at the Tapping Reeve School.

Official Positions: Member, New York Assembly, 1839; mayor of Utica, 1844; member, New York Court of Appeals, 1866–1869; New York State commissioner of appeals, 1869–1873.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President Ulysses S. Grant, December 6, 1872, to replace Samuel Nelson, who had retired; confirmed by the Senate, December 11, 1872, by a voice vote; took judicial oath January 9, 1873; retired January 27, 1882; replaced by Samuel Blatchford, nominated by President Chester A. Arthur.

Death: March 24, 1886, Washington, D.C.

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Ward Hunt
Noteworthy Opinions

Ward Hunt

Ward Hunt's nine-year term on the Supreme Court was generally undistinguished; he is known in law schools today only because of a vigorous dissent on a still troubling jurisdictional question, and he deserves the limited attention of legal historians because of a brief but eloquent dissent from the Court's abdication of civil rights principles.

Little is known of Hunt's life, although basic data can be gleaned from public records and contemporary newspapers. Born into a comfortable middle-class milieu, Hunt was groomed for a legal career, graduating with honors from Union College and studying law with Judge James Gould at the Tapping Reeve School in Litchfield, Connecticut. He was politically active, aligning himself with Martin Van Buren's Jacksonian branch of the New York Democratic Party. In 1844 he was elected mayor of Utica. Opposition to slavery led him to leave the Democrats, and in 1855–1856 he became a founder of the Republican Party in New York. At the close of the Civil War, he was elected to the New York Court of Appeals, becoming chief judge in 1868. He was still serving as New York's chief judicial officer when President Ulysses S. Grant named him to the U.S. Supreme Court. The nomination was apparently at the behest of Sen. Roscoe Conkling, R-N.Y., a fellow Utican and longtime friend. His nomination proved uncontroversial, and he was confirmed within a week.

Hunt's jurisprudential production (152 opinions, 7 dissents) may seem scant for a justice who served nearly a decade on the Court. But Hunt suffered a paralytic stroke in 1878, and during the next four and a half years he remained an associate justice but did not participate in any of the Court's proceedings. Hunt lacked an independent income and consented to retire only after Congress enacted a special bill granting him an early pension.

Hunt's most noble contribution came in the form of a dissent to the Court's 1876 decision to gut the Enforcement Act of 1870, which implemented the Fifteenth Amendment's guarantee of the right to vote for black citizens. In extraordinarily twisted and attenuated reasoning, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, writing for all but Hunt in United States v. Reese (1875), found the congressional act unconstitutional because it was not, in its penalty provisions, limited to denial of the right to vote “on account of race.”

In fact, as Hunt correctly demonstrated, the statute did incorporate such a limitation. The Supreme Court's majority was animated, not by fidelity to the laws they were sworn to uphold, but by baser political motives. The Compromise of 1877, marking an end to Reconstruction and the beginning of the Jim Crow era throughout the South, was already in preparation, and the Court's majority was making its contribution to the betrayal of the South's new citizens. Hunt distinguished himself by refusing to participate in this charade.

The balance of Hunt's opinion consisted of a forceful statement of the Radical Republican principles behind the Fifteenth Amendment. Congress had intended to grant the freed slaves the full measure of rights that had been enjoyed by white citizens up to that date. He found that this guarantee plainly extended the right to vote to state elections as well as federal elections and that it had become part of the “republican form of government” that the Union promised the citizens of the states. In the end, Hunt somberly noted, the majority's intent was to render all the Civil War amendments “impotent.”

Regrettably, Hunt stood quietly by as Waite's steamroller proceeded to devastate the legal protections granted the freedmen; he seems to have regarded Reese as a form of stare decisis to which he was bound. In Cruikshank v. United States (1876), he went along with a ruling that in effect held that vigilantism and terrorism designed to intimidate freedmen from voting were “rights guaranteed to the people by the Constitution.” In Hall v. DeCuir (1878), he silently assented to a ruling striking down a Louisiana law guaranteeing former slaves and free blacks access to railroads without discrimination as an “unconstitutional interference with interstate commerce.” These opinions collectively may represent the most odious chapter in the history of Supreme Court jurisprudence.

Law students today are most likely to come across Hunt through his dissent to the intriguing case of Pennoyer v. Neff (1877). In that case, the Supreme Court invalidated a money judgment rendered against an absentee landowner on the grounds that the state court's exercise of jurisdiction was unconstitutional. The plaintiff had made use of a state statute allowing service by publication if the defendant owned property in the jurisdiction and providing for attachment of the property. Such jurisdiction is called quasi in rem today because it rests on the fictional notion that the res, in this case the real property, is the subject of the litigation. The Court held that the exercise of jurisdiction was unconstitutional because the property had not been attached first. Hunt found this distinction trifling; more significant, he demonstrated that the Court's opinion rested on mere obiter dicta in the cases cited, that is, language that was not necessary to the holding. In opposition, Hunt compiled an impressive assemblage of cases whose holdings squarely contradicted the majority. Although Pennoyer is still correct law, Hunt won lasting admiration for his forceful and persuasive argument on a close legal point.

Hunt was more favorably disposed than his immediate successors on the Court toward the exercise of state regulatory authority on economic questions. He joined in Munn v. Illinois (1877), authorizing the state to fix a ceiling on storage charges in grain silos; and in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), he voted to sustain a state-authorized monopoly. In another series of opinions, he regularly supported bondholders who challenged the attempts of government authorities to welsh on their obligations (Commissioners of Johnson City. v. Thayer, 1877; County of Randolph v. Post, 1877; and Burlington Township v. Beasley, 1877). In these and most other opinions, Hunt did not stand out from his colleagues; he seems very much a man of his times, who offers us little that is of more than historical interest.


Stanley I. Kutler's “Ward Hunt,” in Friedman and Israel, Justices, vol. 2, 1221, is the only serious biographical treatment.

Noteworthy Opinions

United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214 (1875) (Dissent)

Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1877)


Document Citation
Hunt, Ward, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 277 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18167-979289
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