Daniel Symmes provided the lone dissent in the first case brought before the Supreme Court of Ohio to challenge the authority of the Ohio General Assembly.
He was born in Sussex County, N.J. in 1772 to Timothy and Abigail Symmes. Timothy was judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Sussex County. His uncle, John Cleves Symmes, was one of the early founders of Cincinnati in 1788. Timothy settled in Cincinnati shortly after 1788, which was then part of the Northwest Territory. They were the first settlers of South Bend, which was the second settlement founded by John Cleves Symmes.
John Cleve Symmes served as judge of the Northwest Territory Court and Daniel Symmes joined him as a clerk. The court held annual sessions in Cincinnati, Marietta and Detroit each year. While employed in this position, Symmes studied law and was admitted to the bar of the Northwest Territory. He began practicing law in Cincinnati.
Northwest Territory Gov. Arthur St. Clair appointed Symmes Hamilton County sheriff on Sept. 27, 1794. Later that same year, Gov. St. Clair appointed him justice of the peace for Hamilton County on Nov. 19. Symmes served as sheriff until August 1796, when he resigned.
In 1803, Symmes was appointed prosecuting attorney for Butler, Greene and Warren counties by the court of common pleas. Prosecuting attorneys provided legal services to multiple counties within judicial circuits, as many counties on the Ohio frontier did not have resident lawyers.
Symmes served as one of the first trustees of Ohio University, which was established on Feb. 18, 1804. He also served as quartermaster general to the First Division of the Ohio Militia, which included southwest Ohio, after the Ohio General Assembly organized a militia system in its second session.
Symmes was elected to represent Hamilton County in the Ohio Senate in 1803 for a one-year term. His fellow senators elected him speaker pro tempore on Dec. 5, 1803. Re-elected in 1804, he again served as speaker. He wrote of the accomplishments of this session in a letter to Justice Samuel Huntington on Feb. 22, 1805, “We have passed about eighty Laws & resolutions the revision which was an arduous task is nearly complete-entirely so done to the State Government and most of the Laws since are either printed by title or at large in our new volume-one thousand copies of the Laws are to be handsomely bound and lettered in the manner of the Pennsylvania Laws.”
Symmes was elected on Feb. 7, 1805, to serve on the Supreme Court to replace Return J. Meigs Jr. He resigned as an Ohio University trustee and as quartermaster general on Feb. 13, 1805. Ten days later on Feb. 23, Gov. Thomas Kirker issued his commission to serve on the Supreme Court.
The 1802 Constitution mandated that the Supreme Court hold court in each county of the state at least once each year, and as the number of counties increased, this became an onerous duty in light of the travel conditions in the new state. Symmes remarked about the travel in a letter to his fellow Justice, Huntington, “I think it very probable there will be 3 or 4 more (counties) more at next session. I am sure the Judges will never be able to perform their duties unless they ride like Post Boys.”
Symmes disagreed with his fellow Justices that the Court had the right to review legislation passed by the Ohio General Assembly to determine if it conformed to the U.S. and Ohio Constitutions. The Ohio General Assembly enacted a statute in 1805 titled, An Act Defining the Duties of Justices of the Peace and Constables in Criminal and Civil Cases. Justices Huntington and George Tod ruled that section five of this statute was unconstitutional in Rutherford v. McFaddon (1807, unreported). Symmes dissented from their ruling. A similar conclusion was found by Third Judicial Circuit Judge Calvin Pease in E. Wadsworth v. Solomon Braynard, Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas (1808). Members of the Ohio House of Representatives were so incensed by the rulings that they brought impeachment charges against Tod and Pease on Dec. 24, 1808.
On Dec. 2, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson nominated Symmes to be Register of the Land Office at Cincinnati. Accordingly, Symmes resigned from the Court effective Jan. 9, 1808. Symmes held the Land Office position until January 1817, when his brother Peyton Symmes succeeded him.
During this period, he also served on Cincinnati City Council and was council president from 1808 to 1809. Symmes belonged to the First Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, contributing the considerable sum of $500 to the 1808 building fund. Symmes served as a director of the Miami Exporting Company, which was founded to promote trade with New Orleans. He participated in the organization of the Cincinnati Lancaster Seminary in 1814 and served as its secretary. His civic service also included service on the Miami University Board of Trustees from 1810 to 1812.
Symmes married Elizabeth Oliver on April 10, 1796 in North Bend. She was the daughter of Col. and Mrs. Alexander Oliver. Symmes died May 10, 1817 in Cincinnati. His wife survived him, and later remarried, to Thomas Graham on Sept. 29, 1819.
d. May 10, 1817
4th Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio