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William Thomas Spear

William Thomas Spear served with distinction on the Supreme Court of Ohio for 28 years. Writing the majority opinion in 288 cases, his opinions reflect the value he placed on well researched and balanced opinions.

Spear was born on June 3, 1833 to Edward and Ann Adgate Spear in Warren. Spear received his education in the public schools of Warren. Adopting the trade of printer, he worked for several years at the Trumbull Whig and Transcript, a Warren newspaper. Moving to New York City, he secured employment as a printer with the New York Herald. Subsequently, he worked as a compositor and proofreader with Appleton’s publishing house.

Returning to Warren, Spear secured employment as a deputy clerk in the Trumbull County probate and common pleas courts. He studied law with Jacob D. Cox, who later became Governor of Ohio. From 1856 to 1859, Spear studied at Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1859.

In 1859, he was admitted to the bar in Ohio. He joined the law practice of Cox & Ratliff in Warren. Later, he became a law partner of John C. Hutchins, a Warren attorney. For three years, he practiced law in Louisiana while managing a cotton plantation. He also served two terms as Warren city solicitor.

Spear was elected Trumbull County prosecuting attorney in 1871 and re-elected in 1873. After finishing his second term, he formed a legal partnership with C.A. Harrington, an attorney in Warren. It ended in 1877 with Spear’s election for a five-year term to the Common Pleas Court of the Second Subdivision of the Ninth Judicial District, which included Trumbull, Mahoning and Portage counties. He was re-elected in 1882.

The 1851 Ohio Constitution mandated a five-year term for Justices of the Supreme Court. In 1885, Spear was elected as a Republican to fill the remaining two years of the term of the late Judge John W. Okey. He began his term on Dec. 16, 1885.

Spear was elected to a full five-year term in 1887. In 1892, a new law increased the membership of the Supreme Court from five to six members and extended the term of office from five to six years. Spear was re-elected in 1892, 1898 and 1904 to six-year terms. By an Act of the Ohio General Assembly of April 2, 1906, his term of office was extended for two years. His service ended when J. Foster Wilkin defeated Spear is his re-election bid in 1912. Spear served as Chief Justice during the terms of 1892, 1898, 1904 and 1911. Upon his retirement from the Supreme Court, he opened a law office in downtown Columbus.

His 288 cases set a record then unequaled by any member of the Supreme Court. A notable decision that aided divorced women in the collection of alimony payments was The State, on Complaint of Cook v. Cook (1902). Spear and the Supreme Court ruled that a party who was required to pay alimony by the Court could not refuse to pay even if they said they were unable to pay. The Court, in its decree for alimony, established the ability of the party to pay. Failure to pay the alimony decree was regarded as contempt of court, for which the party could be imprisoned.

Spear married Francis Eliza York in Lima, N.Y. on Sept. 28, 1864 and they had four sons.

He died on Dec. 8, 1913 at his home in Columbus of arteriosclerosis. The Supreme Court adjourned to attend his funeral in Columbus on Dec. 11, 1913. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Warren, where he was joined by his wife, who died on March 1, 1926.

Spear’s Supreme Court memorial summarized his judicial career: “Judge Spear was qualified by nature for a judicial career. His mind was logical and was well poised and balanced. He did not reach conclusions rapidly, but considered every question in a case with ceaseless care and labor. He sought to be just, fair and right in his conclusions concerning the law and the application of the principle which should control the case. He was a good listener – an admirable virtue in a judge. He was always courteous, kind, patient, and affable in his relations with members of the bar. His life was an encouragement and inspiration to all who met him, whether in their common profession or through the accidents and chances of business and life.”

William Howard Taft

b. June 3, 1833

d. Dec. 8, 1913

63rd Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio

See All Justices

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