John Henry Stiness (1840-1913) was born to a family with strong New England civic and military roots. His great grandfather, Samuel, served in Colonel John Glover’s famous maritime regiment during the American Revolution, and his grandfather was sailing master aboard the schooner Growler on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812.
In August, 1861, after attending two years at Brown and teaching at Hopkins Grammar School in what was then North Providence, Stiness enlisted in the 2nd New York Artillery, eventually seeing Civil War action at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He was discharged honorably on physical disability in 1862, returned to Providence, studied law in the offices of Thurston and Ripley, and was admitted to the Bar in 1865. In 1868, he married Maria E. Williams, a descendant of Rhode Island’s founder.
This rise of John Stiness in the profession of law was rapid. He was appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1875, only ten years after his Bar admission. He eventually rose to the position of chief justice, remaining in that office from 1900 to 1903. As the chief he championed the modernization, restructuring, and independence of the judiciary.
During his exemplary career, Stiness became involved in a myriad of causes and endeavors. He was elected as a Republican to the General Assembly, chaired the Providence Charter Revision Committee, chaired the special committee on locating and building the Providence County Courthouse, served as president of the Rhode Island Historical Society, chaired an international arbitration conference, was president of the Brown Alumni Association and of the Providence Humane Education Society, was active in the Episcopal Church, and promoted the cause of international peace through arbitration between nations.
After his retirement from the bench, Justice Stiness chaired the seven-member blue-ribbon commission that recommended the Court and Practice Act of 1905--a measure crafted principally by Stiness, Amasa Eaton, and Charles E. Gorman that forms the basis of Rhode Island’s present judicial system. Stiness is best known today for his authorship of “The Struggle for Judicial Supremacy,” a lengthy history of the Rhode Island court system published in Edward Field’s cooperative history of Rhode Island (1902).
Chief Justice Stiness is proudly remembered as a Rhode Islander of extraordinary achievement, versatility, and honor.
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