Ward Hunt was born and raised in Utica, New York. He completed his education at Union College and then studied for the bar under the tutelage of a local judge. After his admission to the bar, Hunt established a lucrative partnership with his judge-tutor.
Hunt was active in politics. He served briefly in the New York Assembly and as mayor of Utica. In both positions, Hunt ran as a Jacksonian Democrat. But Hunt broke with his party on the slavery issue and supported the antislavery Free Soil ticket, voting for presidential candidate Martin Van Buren in 1848. Hunt then participated in the founding of the Republican Party in New York.
Hunt was elected to New York's highest court on the Republican ticket in 1865. Within a few years, he became the court's chief judge. His political mentor was Roscoe Conkling who also was the Republican Party boss. Conkling was a confidant of President Grant. And, with Conkling's influence, Grant chose Hunt for a position on the Supreme Court.
To say that Hunt accomplished little on the Court would be an overstatement. He was given little to do and did just about that, at least with respect to constitutional adjudication. After six years of service, Hunt suffered a severe stroke that prevented his participation in the Court's work. Nevertheless, Hunt remained on the Court for three more years. He stayed on because retirement with full pension required a minimum of 10 years of service and a minimum age of 70. To encourage him to step down, Congress passed an exception to the retirement requirements if he would retire within 30 days. Hunt stepped down at the first available opportunity after passage of the act.