Ward Hunt studied in local academies before attending Hamilton College briefly and then Union College in Schenectady, New York, from which he graduated with honors in 1828. The following year he moved to Litchfield, Connecticut, to study law with Judge James Gould at the Tapping Reeve School (now Litchfield Law School). After law school, Mr. Hunt returned to Utica, where he clerked with Judge Hiram Denio and was admitted to the bar in 1831.
Ward Hunt established a partnership with Judge Hiram Denio and Mr. Hunt rapidly gained a reputation as an outstanding lawyer. Like many lawyers then and now, Ward Hunt gravitated to political affairs. In 1838 he won election to the New York legislature and served there one term. Thereafter, he was elected mayor of Utica in 1844. In the following years, Mr. Hunt tried unsuccessfully to obtain a judicial post. Twice he sought election to New York’s Court of Appeals, losing on both occasions. After his failure to win a seat on this court as a Democrat in 1853, Ward Hunt abandoned the Democratic Party for good. In 1856 he helped organize New York’s fledgling Republican party. In the course of political activity, he became acquainted with Roscoe Conkling, a New York politician whose political career would intersect with Ward Hunt’s life at several points in the future.
Mr. Hunt was prominent in the early years of New York’s Republican Party. He was briefly considered as a possible Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1857, and in 1863 he served temporarily as chairman of the Republican Union Convention in Syracuse, New York. But he still longed to be a judge, and he finally won a seat on the New York Court of Appeals in 1865 under the Republican banner. Within three years he had been elevated to chief justice of the court. When constitutional amendments to the New York constitution reorganized the New York courts in 1869, Mr. Hunt was chosen to continue his judicial service to the state as commissioner of appeals.
Associate Justice Samuel Nelson of New York resigned from the Supreme Court in the fall of 1872. Roscoe Conkling was a U.S. senator from New York at the time, and he pressed President Ulysses S. Grant to appoint Mr. Hunt to fill the vacancy left by Nelson’s retirement. Though there were other potential candidates for the position, Mr. Grant was convinced that most New Yorkers preferred Hunt. Roscoe Conkling’s blessing clinched the appointment, and Ulysses Grant forwarded Ward Hunt’s name to the Senate on December 3, 1872. The Senate confirmed the appointment eight days later without controversy, and Mr. Hunt took the oath of office as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court on January 9, 1873.
His appointment to the Court was overshadowed within a few months of his arrival by the death of Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. And in the company of luminous judicial minds and personalities such as Samuel Miller, Joseph Bradley, and Stephen Field, Hunt was a relatively light.
Justice Ward Hunt’s arrival on the Court received not nearly as much attention as the circumstances of his departure from it. Beginning in 1877, he missed sessions of the Court while suffering from gout. Then, in January 1879, Mr. Hunt suffered a stroke that left him permanently disabled on one side of this body. He returned to the bench only one more time, but he nevertheless refused to resign from the Court. In part, he clung to his seat on the Court because he had not served the 10 years required by law to obtain a pension. He also declined to resign out of deference to his old, Roscoe Conkling - still a U.S. senator - who was not willing to allow President Rutherford B. Hayes to make an appointment to the Court. Finally, Congress broke the impasse by passing a special law to provide Mr. Hunt with a pension; he submitted resignation the day the law became effective. Once more, though, the paths of Ward Hunt and Roscoe Conkling crossed: after Mr. Hunt’s retirement President Chester A. Arthur nominated Mr. Conkling to fill the seat on the Court vacated by Mr. Hunt. The Senate, in fact, confirmed Roscoe Conkling, but he declined to accept the appointment in order to pursue his ambition to become president.
Because of Mr. Hunt's opposition to the spread of slavery, he followed the well-trodden path from the ranks of Jacksonian Democrats to the Free Soil and then to the Republican Party. His antislavery views led him to support Martin Van Buren for president in 1848.
Ward Hunt was an able and hardworking judge.
In 1837, Ward Hunt was married to Mary Ann Savage (1819-1846), the daughter of U.S. Representative and Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court John Savage, with whom he had three children, one of whom died in childhood. Together they were the parents of Elizabeth Stringham "Eliza" Hunt, who married Arthur Breese Johnson (1829-1883). After his wife's death, Mr. Hunt remained a widower for eight years until 1853 when he married the daughter of James Taylor, the former Cashier of the Commercial Bank of Albany.