Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, 1804-1819
Chief Justice, 1819-1823
Justice Ambrose Spencer was born in Salisbury, Connecticut on December 13, 1765. Although he started his studies at Yale in 1779, when the college was disrupted by the Revolutionary War, he transferred to Harvard. An outstanding scholar, he graduated from Harvard in 1783 at the age of 17. Spencer then studied law, first in the office of John Canfield of Sharon, CT, then in the law office of John Bay of Claverak, NY, and finally in the law office of Eziekel Gilbert of Hudson, NY.
In 1787, in the newly-built Columbia County courthouse in Claverak, Judge Peter Van Ness presided over the admission of several new members of the Supreme Court bar, and these included Ambrose Spencer. Shortly afterward, Spencer was admitted to practice before the Court of Chancery.
Ambrose Spencer settled in Hudson, N.Y., and represented Columbia County in the New York State Assembly from 1793 to 1795, and in the New York State Senate from 1795 to 1802. Appointed New York State Attorney General on February 3, 1802, he prosecuted Harry Croswell, the publisher of a small paper called the Wasp, for seditious libel against President Thomas Jefferson (People v. Croswell, 3 Johns. Cas. 337 N.Y. ). While the Croswell trial was in progress, Spencer was appointed an Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, but he delayed taking his place on the bench until the trial ended.
Associate Justice Spencer was prominent in the high profile case of John V.N. Yates (1809), involving a jurisdictional conflict between the New York Supreme Court and the New York Court of Chancery. Spencer joined in Chief Justice Kent’s opinion in the landmark blasphemy case of People v. Ruggles.
Ambrose Spencer was named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1819, and represented Albany at the 1821 Constitutional Convention. Under the provisions of the new constitution, all civil offices in the State expired on December 31, 1822 and Spencer left the bench in February 1823, as required. Mayor of Albany in 1824, Spencer was a member of the House of Representatives for the Tenth District from 1829-1831. The House of Representatives appointed him a manager in the 1830 impeachment proceedings against U.S. District Court Judge James H. Peck.
The University of Pennsylvania conferred Spencer with the degree of LL.D. in 1819, and Harvard similarly honored him in 1821. He died in the village of Lyons, Wayne County on March 13, 1848, and his death was marked with a State funeral during which the flag on the Capitol was flown at half mast.
The village of Spencer, Tioga County, New York, was named for him and his portrait forms part of the art collection in New York Court of Appeals Hall in Albany, NY.
Daniel Dewey Barnard. A Discourse on the Life, Character and Public Services of Ambrose Spencer, late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New York, delivered by request before the bar of the city of Albany, January 5, 1849 (1849).
Peyton Farrell Miller. A Group of Great Lawyers of Columbia County, New York (1904).