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b. April 16, 1804
d. Dec. 30, 1877
42nd Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio
Term
Feb. 9, 1859
to Feb. 9, 1864

WILLIAM VIRGIL PECK

As a common pleas judge in southern Ohio, William Virgil Peck was noted for being scrupulous about granting divorces.

Peck was born in Cayuga, N.Y. on April 16, 1804 to Virgil and Mary Wallace Peck. Peck attended the public schools of Litchfield and also studied the classics at the Pierce Academy and later at the South Farms Academy. In 1816, he moved to Watertown, N.Y., where he worked as a clerk in a store for three years. Returning to Connecticut in 1819, he was a law clerk at Winsted until 1824, when he entered Judge Gould’s Law School at Litchfield. He graduated in 1826.

After graduation, Peck moved to Cincinnati where he became a law clerk in the law office of Judge Bellamy Storer. In 1827, he moved to Portsmouth where he established a legal practice that he maintained until 1847. As a high-ranking member of the community, Peck delivered speeches at significant events: at the opening of the Ohio Canal in October 1832 in Portsmouth, on the occasion of former President John Quincy Adams’ visit to Portsmouth on Nov. 14, 1843 and when President-elect Zachary Taylor stopped in Portsmouth on his way to his inauguration in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 16, 1849.

In 1839, 1841, 1842, 1845 and 1846, Peck served as examiner and visitor of the Portsmouth Public Schools. The provisions of the 1802 Constitution authorized the Ohio General Assembly to appoint judges of the court of common pleas by a joint ballot of both chambers. In February 1847, he was elected by the legislature to be president judge of the Court of Common Pleas for the Seventh Judicial Circuit for a seven-year term. The 1851 Constitution turned this election over to the voters, who elected Peck in October 1851, to a five-year term in the Seventh Judicial District. Peck was re-elected in 1856 without opposition. The Constitution required court be held in each county of the district at least once a year. At the start of his term on Feb. 9, 1852, Peck often traveled by horse to Gallipolis, Jackson and other towns in the district to hold court.

Parties going before the court to ask for a divorce to be granted had to “make a case beyond all doubts, reasonable or otherwise” according to Nelson Evans, author of A History of Scioto County, Ohio. He further wrote, “In a cause where there was any question of the right to divorce, Judge Peck would take the papers and after several days would return them to the Clerk and announce that he believed the parties could live together and therefore a divorce would be refused.”

Peck was elected to serve on the Supreme Court of Ohio in 1858, for a five-year term. He resigned from the Seventh Judicial District and took his seat on the Supreme Court on Feb. 9, 1859. He served as Chief Justice during 1862 and 1863.

An important decision regarding the education of African-American and mixed race children was decided by the Supreme Court in Enos Van Camp v. The Board of Education of the Incorporated Village of Logan (1859).  

The plaintiff, Enos Van Camp, was a taxpayer of Hocking County. His two children were denied admittance to the Logan Public Schools on the grounds that the school district considered them “colored.” Van Camp sued in the Hocking County Court of Common Pleas stating that the children were white. Upon appeal, the district court of Hocking County ruled in favor of the defendant. The school district argued that the children were five-eights white and three-eights black.

The Ohio General Assembly provided in its statute of March 14, 1853, for the education of all youth, white and “colored” in separate schools. Due to the few numbers of African-Americans in Logan, the school district did not provide for the education of “colored” children. The Court was asked to define the difference between white and “colored.” Peck used the definition of Noah Webster that “colored people” are “black people – Africans or their descendents, mixed or unmixed.” Since Van Camp’s children were of mixed race, they were not white and could not attend the Logan Public Schools.

Although he ruled against the children, Peck in his majority opinion described the many indignities African-American citizens of Ohio suffered. He wrote: “For nearly two generations, blacks and mulattoes had been a proscribed and degraded race in Ohio. They were debarred from the elective franchise and prohibited from immigration and settlement within our borders, except under severe restrictions. They were also excluded from our common schools and all means of public instruction – incapacitated from serving upon juries, and denied the privilege of testifying in cases where a white person was a party.”

Peck declined the opportunity to seek re-election. He returned to Portsmouth in February 1864 and never resumed the practice of law.

On July 8, 1830, Peck married Mary Ann Cook and they had 14 children. Mary Ann Peck died Dec. 11, 1877. Two weeks later, Peck died on Dec. 30, 1877. Both are buried in Green Lawn Cemetery in Portsmouth.