Justice Hunt was born in Utica, New York, in the central upstate region of the state where he grew up, spent almost his entire professional life and from which he would be appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Hunt attended Union College and graduated with a B.A. in 1828, before briefly studying law at Litchfield Law School in Connecticut, though he did not complete a degree there.
Justice Hunt studied for the bar under the tutelage of a local judge and then entered private practice in 1832, a career he would stick with while also taking on various civil service jobs until 1865. He became a New York State Assemblyman in 1838, serving only for the duration of that year, and served as Mayor of his hometown of Utica in 1844, again only for one year. Justice Hunt ran for both positions as a Jacksonian Democrat, though he broke with his party on the issue of slavery and eventually abandoned it to briefly join the Free Soil Party before helping to found the Republican Party of New York. He was elected on the Republican ticket to be a Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals in 1865, and remained in that position until 1869, a term of service which included a one year stint as Chief Judge from 1868-1869. Justice Hunt left active service as a judge to become a member of the Commission of Appeals for the State of New York from 1869 until his appointment to the SCUS.
Justice Hunt was nominated by President Ulysses S. Grant on December 3, 1872, to a seat vacated by Justice Samuel Nelson. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on December 11, and received his commission that day. Justice Hunt took the Judicial Oath to officially join the SCUS on January 9, 1873, and very briefly served on the Chase Court before spending the bulk of his Supreme Court career on the Waite Court. His service was terminated on January 27, 1882, due to his retirement.
Justice Hunt’s career with the SCUS was almost totally unremarkable, and he did not exert any particularly strong influence over either the other Justices or the development of legal doctrine. His lack of accomplishment while on the Court can be at least partially attributed to his having suffered a debilitating stroke after just 6 years of service. Justice Hunt would likely have preferred to retire then, but he chose to stay on for 3 more years because members of the SCUS at the time were required to serve for at least 10 years and attain at least the age of 70 before they were eligible to receive a full pension. Congress eventually passed a special exemption to the retirement requirements just so that Justice Hunt could leave the bench, and he did so as soon as the law went into in effect.