The man who served as the seventeenth Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals1 was born in the small town of Bridgewater, Oneida County, on January 30, 1824, the child of John Ruger and Sophia Brown Ruger. John Ruger, a graduate of Union College, had a flourishing law practice in Schenectady, but subsequently moved the family to Syracuse where he continued to practice until his death in 1855. Young Ruger was educated at Bridgewater Academy and then studied law for several years with his father.
After his admission to the bar in July 1845, Ruger joined his father’s law firm and practiced under the name J. and William C. Ruger. He remained in Syracuse after his father’s death and practiced with Frank Lester under the name of Ruger and Lester until 1860. In 1865 he formed a partnership with E.S. Jenney under the name of Ruger and Jenney. In 1869 William J. Wallace joined the practice until 1874 when he was appointed United States District Judge for the Northern District of New York.2 Ruger then practiced under the name Ruger, Jenney, Brooks & French.
On May 2, 1860, Judge Ruger married Harriet Prosser, the eldest daughter of Erastus S. Prosser of Buffalo. The couple had one son C. (Crawford) Prosser Ruger born on November 8, 1861. He was also called to the bar as his father and grandfather before him.
Judge Ruger continued to practice in Syracuse until his election to the Court of Appeals. He was highly regarded in the legal community and served as counsel in high profile cases, one among them arising from an investigation into contractors’ business dealings with the state involving repairs to and extensions of the state canal system. The Commission appointed by Governor Samual J. Tilden to investigate canal abuses found evidence of fraud and illegal profits, resulting in a suit by the State against James J. Beldon and H.D. Denison who were partners in obtaining state contracts. The State won a recovery of $460,000 with interest. Judge Ruger represented Beldon and was successful in obtaining a reversal and in addition won attorneys’ fees and disbursements which he successfully recovered in a later suit against Beldon (Ruger v. Beldon, 91 NY 646 [Jan. 16, 1883]).3 The resulting animosity between Ruger and Governor Tilden was to cost Ruger dearly in his later attempts to win the Democratic nomination for Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and other offices.4 Other well-known cases of the time in which he was counsel include the Lindsley murder trial and the suits connected with the Jaycox & Green and People’s Savings Bank bankruptcy.
His Colleagues Admired Him
. . . [a]s one of the ablest members of the Onondaga Bar, being noted as a shrewd, practical and effective lawyer rather than a brilliant orator. In the conduct of his cases, he excelled especially in clearness of statement, methodical arrangement of thought and logical and earnest reasoning.5
In addition to his successful law practice, Judge Ruger contributed to the advancement of his profession. He was a driving force behind the formation of his county’s and state’s bar associations. Judge Ruger served as the first president of the Onondaga Bar Association established June 12, 1875 and continued to serve in that office for the next three years. He was a founding member of the New York State Bar Association, incorporated in November 1876, chosen by his peers to conduct the proceedings. He later served as president of the Association in 1882 and again in 1883.6
No stranger to politics, Ruger was a lifelong “conservative” Democrat and influential in both state and national arenas. As early as 1849 he was a delegate to the famous “Hunker” Convention. He was a delegate to the State Judicial Convention of 1870, the 1872 National Convention (in which he played a prominent role in nominating Horace Greeley for President) and the 1877 State Convention.7
In 1864, 1866, and 1880, he was the Democratic nominee for Congress but was defeated each time. At the Saratoga Convention in 1880,8 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the nomination of Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. In March 1884 while serving as Chief Judge, his name surfaced as a potential Democratic nominee for President of the United States. His reaction was emphatic:
That is a question about which I wish to say nothing further than that I deprecate the use of my name in such a connection. It is pleasant, of course, to hear complimentary things said about one’s self and to feel that one’s friends are anxious to confer the highest honor attainable in the United States, yet I think my duty to those who have placed me in my present position demands my undivided attention. … A Judge of the Court of Appeals owes it to the people to keep as much as possible out of active political work.9
Chief Judge of the Court
Judge Ruger won the election for Chief Judge of the Court in 1882, defeating his Republican opponent, Charles Andrews, then sitting Chief Judge, also of Syracuse, who later succeeded Ruger as Chief Judge.
Seen as an outsider, Judge Ruger came to the Court with an extensive resume but lacked judicial experience. Nevertheless, he authored 274 opinions during his tenure and was praised for his administrative abilities and personal qualities which enabled him to conduct the business of the Court with “rare dignity.” Judge Andrews in his tribute noted “[t]he office of Chief Judge requires for its successful administration more than mere legal learning[.]…[T]act, a knowledge of human nature…and a bearing on the part of the Chief Judge [are necessary so] that parties…feel that they [are] afforded a fair chance….”10 His imposing presence and an instinctive judicial temperament were noted.11 Underneath his stern countenance was a kind nature and a “quaint” humor shown only to those considered intimates.12
In the ninth year of his term on January 14, 1892, Chief Judge Ruger died at his home in Syracuse at 12:30 p.m. after a week-long illness. His last public appearance was in Albany on December 29, where he handed down decisions in election cases. He contracted “catarrh of the stomach” which was aggravated by persistent hiccoughs. His physician advised him to put aside the opinion he was working on, but in his usual fashion the Judge refused to quit.13 His wife and son were with him at the end.
Immediately following his death the courtroom and his chair were draped in mourning and the Court was adjourned until January 20 at 10:00 a.m. Many tributes were paid to him from the bench and bar alike.
Justice George N. Kennedy and Judge Irving G. Vann of the Court of Appeals paid eloquent tribute to the worth and ability of the deceased jurist. Judge Vann said:
His career as a Judge fittingly crowned his career as a lawyer, for the greatest Judge is great only as he is a great lawyer. The record of his work as a Judge is spread through many volumes of the New York reports, and there is not a weak opinion among the hundreds that he wrote. Every question that he considered shows the grasp of a strong mind and a great lawyer. His views upon a question might be wrong, according to the judgment of his associates, but they were never weak or narrow, for his nature was incapable of it. He brought to the office of Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals a mind ripened, matured and fitted by the work of his life for the arduous, exacting and important duties of that high position. He also brought with him industry, integrity, courage, good judgment, good sense, and a lofty enthusiasm for right and justice.14
Four of his colleagues from the Onondaga County Bar Association were appointed as pall bearers to accompany the funeral procession.15 On January 19 the service was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Syracuse. The body was taken to Oakwood Cemetery for burial.16
A lawyer, William Cowie, made Judge Ruger the subject of a brief poem called “An Impromptu Offering to Members of the Bar”:
Long may you gather in this room,
Nor be your pledging, toasting,
Restrained by thought of coming
But, surely, when you go below,
They will not be uncivil;
If only Ruger with you go,
He’ll charm the very devil.17
Chief Judge Ruger was survived by his wife Harriet Prosser Ruger and a son Crawford Prosser Ruger. No living progeny have been identified as yet.
This biography appears in The Judges of the New York Court of Appeals: A Biographical History, ed. Hon. Albert M. Rosenblatt (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007). It has not been updated since publication.
Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography. New York: D. Appelton & Co. (1888-1889) (6 volumes).
Bergan, The History of the New York Court of Appeals, 1847-1932. Columbia University Press (1985).
Browne, The New York State Court of Appeals Parts I & II, The Green Bag, Nos. 7 & 8 (July & August 1890).
Bruce, Memorial History of Syracuse, New York: Part II. Biographical, Syracuse H.P. Smith & Co. (1891).
Bruce, Onondaga’s Centennial: Gleanings of a Century, Boston History Co. (1896) (2 volumes).
Chester, Courts and Lawyers of New York: A History. American Historical Society of New York and Chicago (1925) (4 volumes)
Chester, The Legal and Judicial History of New York, National Americana Society (1911) (2 volumes)
Chief Judge Ruger Dead, New York Times (1857-Current File); January 15, 1892. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Clayton, History of Onondaga County, New York, D. Mason (1878).
Danforth, Obituary, New York City Bar Association Reports: 23rd Annual Report (1893)
Obituary, January 23, 1892, 36 Harper’s Weekly (1892) p 75.
Proceedings in the Court of Appeals in Reference to the Death of Hon. William C. Ruger, Late Chief Judge of Said Court Who Died January 14, 1892, 129 NY 681.
Published Writings Include:
All of Chief Judge Ruger’s opinions for the Court of Appeals are published in the Official Reports. In addition, any briefs that he wrote and filed at the Court of Appeals are public documents and can be accessed through the State Archives. During his long and varied political and professional life, it is certain he spoke on many occasions and authored articles or other documents relating to his activities.
Ruger, William C., Letter Accepting Nomination for Court of Appeals, New York Daily Tribune, Oct 10, 1882, p2.
Arguments of Counsel Before the Court of Appeals, in the case of People v. Denison, Feb 1, 1881, stenographically reported. Courier Print Co. (1881).
- As the seventeenth Chief Judge of the Court since its establishment in 1847, Ruger sat as the fourth Chief Judge of the court as reconstituted under the revised judiciary article emanating from the Constitutional convention of 1867. Effective January 1, 1870, its purpose was to correct the inadequacies of the court established by the Constitutional convention of 1846. Sanford E. Church, Charles J. Folger and Charles Andrews preceded him as Chief Judge. (see The New York State Court of Appeals: Part I v. 2 No. 7 The Green Bag (July 1890), pg 277, 278; The New York State Court of Appeals: Part II v.2 No. 8 The Green Bag (August 1890), p 321.
- Proceedings in the Court of Appeals in Reference to the Death of Hon. William C. Ruger, Late Chief Judge of Said Court who died January 14, 1892, 129 NY 681, 684.
- The Canal Investigation. New York Times (1857-Current File); July 15, 1875; ProQuest Historical Newspapers. It is interesting to note his co-counsel Frank Hiscock was elected to the Congress and served for 10 years from 1877 until 1887. He was then elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican from 1887 until 1893. His son Frank was appointed as Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals from 1906 to 1916 and was then elected to a 10-year term as Chief Judge.
- Governor Tilden sought to block Judge Ruger’s nomination for Chief Judge also in part because of Ruger’s support of William Marcy Tweed and Tammany Hall. The Tweed Ring ran a ward-based patronage driven form of local government which controlled New York City for years until ousted through the efforts of Tilden. The Syracuse Standard reported:
“Chief Justice Ruger was the bright and shining light at whom for years the shafts of the Tildenites were aimed. He was the champion of Tammany’s cause time and again and he paid for it afterwards when mentioned in state conventions for one office or another. No meaner piece of trickery was ever attempted than that which marked the Democratic convention of 1882, when, at the very last moment, the Tilden faction, in violation of an understanding reached before the evening session, sought to carry the convention against Mr. Ruger. On that occasion, Lester B. Faulkner, chairman of the convention, revealed his dislike for Tammany’s favorite in a manner so offensive that the cry of shame was heard on the floor. Mr. Ruger was elected to the office of Chief Justice of the State, but the count showed that thousands of Tilden men forgot to vote for him.”
“Onondaga’s Candidate” The Syracuse Standard, March 19, 1884 from the clipping file of the Onondaga County Historical Society (no citation).
- A History of the Bench and Bar of New York, NY History Co. 1897, p 466.
- The Hon. John Kilham Porter former Associate Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals was the Association’s first president.
- Chief Judge Ruger Dead, New York Times (1857 – Current File); January 15, 1892; ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Candidates for Congress: Nominations in Various Districts – The Canvass in Other Places. New York Times (1857-Current File); October 7, 1880; ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Judge Ruger and the Presidency. New York Times (1857-Current File) March 27, 1884; ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- His colleagues observed: “His large frame, strong features, his deep set eyes shaded by heavy eyebrows, the lines of his mouth, expressive of firmness, all combined to give impression of a strong personality.” Proceedings in the Court of Appeals in Reference to the Death of Hon. William C. Ruger, 129 NY 681, 683.
- Proceedings of the Court of Appeals, 129 NY 681, 682-683.
- Likenesses of the Chief Judge can be found in the following sources: The most well-known is found in the Court of Appeals Hall hung in the magnificent H.H. Richardson Courtroom.
Bruce Memorial History of Syracuse: Part II: Biographical (sketch), Syracuse, H.P. Smith & Co. (1891), p. 176.
Portrait (Photographic Reproduction) 2 Greenbag (1890), p 335.
Portrait (Woodcut) 36 Harper’s Weekly (1892), p 75.
Portrait of William Ruger: Lawyer and Jurist – Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, 1882-1892 (sketch), 1 Chester, The Legal and Judicial History of New York, National Americana Society (1911), p 184.
- This may have been his last opinion published posthumously, Zabriskie v. Central Vermont Railroad Co., 131 NY 72, argued December 2, 1891 and decided February 2, 1892.
- Remarks given at the Memorial Meeting of the Onondaga County Bar Association in tribute to Chief Judge Ruger from the clipping file of the Onondaga County Historical Society (no citation).
- Meeting of the (Onondaga) Bar from the clipping file of the Onondaga County Historical Society (no citation).
- Chief Judge Ruger Buried: The Service Held at Syracuse. New York Daily Tribune. January 19, 1892.
- Syracuse Post-Standard, August 15, 1948.