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b. 1772
d. Sept. 9, 1827
2nd Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio
Term
April 2, 1803
to April 12, 1806
Feb. 16, 1808
to Feb. 10, 1810

WILLIAM SPRIGG

William Sprigg served as one of the first three judges of the Supreme Court of Ohio and as a territorial judge in New Orleans and Illinois.

He was born in Maryland in 1770 to Joseph and Hannah Lee Sprigg. Sprigg served as one of the justices of Prince George’s County, Md. from 1766 to 1774, as judge of the Orphan’s Court for Washington County, Md. in 1777 and as one of the justices of Washington County in 1778 and 1782.

Little is known of Sprigg’s childhood. It can be surmised that he studied law with his father and was admitted to the bar in Maryland. When Sprigg moved to the Northwest Territory or where he lived is unknown. From 1800 to 1803, he served as prosecuting attorney for several terms of the Northwest Territory Quarter Session Court. Sprigg Township, which was organized in 1806 in Adams County, was named after him.

On April 1, 1803, the Ohio General Assembly elected Sprigg, Samuel Huntington and Return Jonathan Meigs Jr. to be Supreme Court judges. Sprigg received his commission for the office from Gov. Edward Tiffin in April 18, 1803.

An opportunity to serve as one of the three territory judges in Michigan came when President Thomas Jefferson appointed Huntington and Sprigg in 1805. Both men declined the position. The president then nominated Sprigg judge of the Superior Court of the Territory of (New) Orleans on Jan. 20, 1806. The U.S. Senate confirmed his appointment the following day. Word of his selection did not reach Sprigg until April 8, 1806. He submitted his resignation to Gov. Tiffin on April 12, 1806.

Moving to New Orleans in April 1806, Sprigg began his service as one of the three territory judges of the Superior Court of the Orleans Territory. Little is known about the litigation of this court as printed reports were not kept. If Sprigg chose to leave the bench, the president asked Gov. William C.C. Claiborne to offer him the position of land commissioner. Claiborne replied in a letter dated June 28, 1807 that Sprigg left New Orleans on May 23, 1807 for New York, unsure whether he would remain as judge or accept the position of land commissioner for the Western District of Orleans Territory. Sprigg declined both positions and his service as judge ended on Oct. 7, 1807.

On Feb. 13, 1808, the Ohio General Assembly elected Sprigg to a term of seven years as a Supreme Court justice. He replaced Daniel Symmes who resigned. Gov. Tiffin commissioned Sprigg on Feb. 16, 1808 and he joined his fellow judges Huntington, George Tod and Meigs Jr. in riding the circuit.

During this period, the Court found itself in opposition with the Ohio General Assembly over which arm of Ohio government determined the constitutionality of laws passed by the legislature. Earlier, Judges Huntington and Tod and Third Judicial Circuit Judge Calvin Pease found certain parts of an act passed by the Ohio General Assembly to be unconstitutional and the Ohio House of Representatives, consequently, impeached Tod and Pease. Although both men were narrowly acquitted by the Ohio Senate, the legislature fired its last salvo when they passed the Sweeping Resolutions, which declared that the seven-year term for each Justice began when the office was created. The effect of this law was that all judgeships became vacant in 1810, allowing the General Assembly to elect Thomas Scott, William W. Irwin and Ethan A. Brown to replace Huntington, Tod and Sprigg on Feb. 10, 1810. Tod and Sprigg considered this act of the General Assembly to be unconstitutional. Huntington was elected governor and Sprigg wrote him on Feb. 18, 1810, asking if he intended to commission Brown and Irwin (Scott joined the Court in 1809 to replace Huntington and was re-elected by the legislature). The governor did commission them.

Sprigg and Tod considered holding a court and riding the circuit in opposition to the Supreme Court of Brown, Scott and Irwin, but upon further reflection, they decided against this course of action. Sprigg resigned his commission and Tod was elected to the Ohio Senate, where he diligently worked for the repeal of the Sweeping Resolutions, which occurred in 1812.

Sprigg returned to the judiciary when President James Madison appointed him to a four-year term as judge of the Louisiana Territory on May 7, 1812. When Louisiana was admitted as a state in 1812, Missouri and Arkansas became part of the newly named Territory of Missouri. Sprigg continued as territory judge of the Missouri Territory.

In 1813, President Madison appointed Sprigg as a judge of the Illinois Territory and the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination on July 29, 1813. Sprigg refused to obey a law passed by the Illinois Territorial Legislature that required judges to hold circuits in each county and in March 1816, when he should have been starting to make his first circuit, he left the Illinois Territory for Maryland. He continued to refute the law when he returned in October 1816, depriving the residents of his circuit judicial services. In December 1817, the legislature re-established the county courts of common pleas and granted them original jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases. The territory judges were relieved of all circuit duty and required to hold four general courts per year.

Illinois Gov. John Reynolds wrote of his colleague:

“William Sprigg possessed a strong discriminating mind, and made an excellent Judge-was a fine classical scholar, and a well read and profound lawyer…He had an utter contempt for street politics. A purer heart, or one with more integrity, never found its way to the bench. He was a spectator, in the Campaign of 1812, under Gov. Edwards to Peoria Lake, as he had no gun, or weapons that indicated belligerency [belligerency]. His pacific, and sickly appearance, together with his perfect philosophic indifference, as to war or peace, life or death, made him the subject of much discussion among the troops. He was the only savant [man of learning]in the army, to my observation.”

Illinois was admitted as a state on Dec. 3, 1818 and the territorial courts were replaced by a state judicial system. Sprigg sought the Illinois House of Representatives’ nomination to Congress to become U.S. District Court Judge for Illinois. Failing to secure their approval, he moved to Hagerstown, Md., where he died on Sept. 9, 1827.