Ames, Samuel, 1806-1865
Chief Justice Samuel Ames (1806-1865) of Providence served in many public capacities including state legislator, speaker of the house, and quartermaster general of the state militia. His most significant service was as chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court (1856-1865).
Ames studied at Phillips-Andover Academy and graduated from Brown University in 1823. He read law for two years under the direction of Samuel W. Bridgham, Providence’s first mayor, and studied for a year at the famous Litchfield Law School in Connecticut. Ames was both a successful lawyer and a legal scholar. With Joseph K. Angell, he co-authored the book Treatise on the Law of Private Corporations Aggregate (1832). This work went through ten additions and became a standard authority on the law governing private corporations.
Ames mixed law with politics. As a staunch Whig, he served a decade in the Providence City Council (1841-51) and spent some time as a state representative, serving as speaker of the house in 1844 and 1845. During the Dorr Rebellion, Ames was a leading member of the Law and Order faction and served as quartermaster general of the state militia that vanquished Dorr. His role in that controversy was ironic in that he had supported Dorr and Angell in the constitutional reform movement of 1834 and had married Mary Throop Dorr, sister of the famed reformer, in 1838.
On June 26, 1856, the Grand Committee of the General Assembly elected Samuel Ames to be chief justice of the Supreme Court. He served in that capacity until five weeks before his death on December 20, 1865. He rendered his most notable opinion in the case of Taylor v Place (1856), a landmark decision asserting the independence of the judiciary from the General Assembly. In this case, Ames declared unconstitutional (under the basic law of 1843) a special act of the legislature setting aside a verdict for Taylor reached by the Providence County Court of Common Pleas in a suit for the recovery of debts. This decision barred a legislative practice that had been commonplace since 1663.
During Ames’s ten-year tenure as Rhode Island’s chief judicial officer, he dramatically upgraded the system of reporting court opinions, acting himself as a court reporter. Although Ames strongly asserted judicial power, thus earning the soubriquet “the Great Chief Justice,” he believed that the judiciary should use its power sparingly whenever it evaluated the constitutionality of legislative acts. He was, therefore, an exponent of judicial restraint.