Biography of Hon. Theodore Miller


History of Columbia County, New York

By Captain Franklin Ellis

Published by Everts & Ensign

Philadelphia, PA



Pages  207-209


     Hon. Theodore Miller, one of the judges of the court of appeals of this State, is a native of Hudson, N.Y., in which city he was born on the 16th day of May, 1816.  He is descended, on the paternal side, from a Holland family who came to this country in the company with the Van Rensselaers, about 1650, and settled at Albany, N. Y.  They afterwards moved to Claverack, Columbia Co., where their descendants have since resided.

     His father, the late Cornelius Miller, was an eminent lawyer of his time, and had for his contemporaries and associates in practice Martin Van Buren, Elisha Williams, William W. Van Ness, and other prominent statesmen and jurists of that day.  Born in Claverack in 1787, he graduated at Columbia College, in the city of New York, and entered upon an unusually brilliant professional and public career, being an active politician, a fine orator, and a gentleman of liberal culture and of a wide range of experience.  During a portion of his professional life he practiced law in partnership with Hon. Martin Van Buren.  At the time of his death, in 1822, he held the office of clerk of Columbia county,--an office at that time conferred by gubernatorial appointment, and indicative of the confidence and trust reposed in the recipient.  He (Cornelius Miller) married Beulah Hathaway, daughter of John Hathaway, of Hudson, N.Y., a man of wealth and high social standing.  The death of  Mr. Miller at an early age closed a career of unusually brilliant promise.

     His son, Theodore, inherited all his eminent qualities to a remarkable degree.  Admitted to the bar early in life, with but little means at his command save a thorough education, an indomitable will, and a mind and habits well suited to his profession, by industry, hard study, and perseverance he gradually won his way to the front rank of his profession.

     At the very outset of his legal career he was placed in circumstances well calculated to test not merely his abilities as a lawyer, but his courage, fidelity, and energy, and all the higher qualities of manly character.  In 1843 he was appointed, by the old court of common pleas, district attorney for Columbia county, the principal theatre of the anti-rent conflict, which at that period involved the most serious local difficulties ever encountered by the judiciary.  He was then young, and inexperienced in his profession in the higher courts, but the duties of his office as district attorney required him to confront this formidable insurrection against law and order, and bring to justice its perpetrators.  So well did he perform his duties during this stormy and trying time in the criminal history of the county that he came out of the ordeal with unlimited approbation.  Not only did he sustain the test of the grave and weighty responsibilities which this critical state of affairs imposed upon him, but gained an experience and prestige which marked an era in his professional life.

     From that time forward he successfully pursued the best walks of his profession industriously, energetically and ably performing its varied duties until, in 1861, he had established so high a character for devotion to his profession, ability in its practice, and integrity and purity as a man, that he was called by the appreciative voice of the Third Judicial district of the State to be the associate of Judges Peckham, Hogeboom, and Gould, as a justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York.

     His ripe experience in all the various contested litigations into which a busy practice of nearly twenty years had thrown him had eminently fitted him for his new and responsible situation.  This fitness was fully recognized and expressed in the popular vote by which his nomination on the Democratic ticket was ratified at the polls.  His county, which a year before had gone one thousand Republican, gave him about two thousand five hundred majority; the city of Hudson--polling about twelve hundred votes, and usually Republican--gave him over eight hundred majority, and this although a very able and estimable lawyer was a candidate against him.  He was triumphantly elected, and carried to the bench the same habits of careful study and of painstaking research which had characterized him at the bar.  His opinions soon began to attract attention.  They were logical, learned, and exhaustive, critical in analysis and comprehensive in reasoning.  A the circuit he shirked no labor, [p. 208] slighted no cause.  Kind and courteous to all, yet ever fearless and unswerving in following his convictions, he came to be regarded and cited as the model of an honest, upright judge.  His administration was universally satisfactory and successful.

     Speaking of the character of Judge Miller as a justice of he Supreme Court, the Albany Argus, of Oct. 3, 1870, says, "The young men of the bar found in him a judge who heard them patiently and respectfully, and from whose presence they went away satisfied that, whatever might be the fate of their cases, they had a fair and respectful hearing, and would have an honest, intelligent decision."

     After eight years' service as justice of the Supreme Court, Judge Miller was re-elected in the fall of 1869 without opposition.  In 1870, upon the reorganization of the courts under the new judiciary system, he was appointed chief-justice of the general term of the Third Judicial department, embracing some twenty-eight counties, with Justices Potter and Parker as his associates.  This brought him fact to face with a professional constituency extending over half of the State.

     In this new and responsible field the administration of Judge Miller won universal commendation.  His ability and impartiality disarmed criticism, while under his administration, with the heavy calendars of the Third, Fourth, and Sixth Judicial districts thrown upon them, there was scarcely one general term at which any suitor had not an opportunity to bring his cause on to argument.  When speedy justice was not done, it was not the fault of the general term over which Judge Miller presided.

     At the Democratic State convention, held in Syracuse, in the fall of 1874, Judge Miller was placed in nomination for judge of the court of appeals,--the highest and most important judicial tribunal of the State.  It may be well here to remark that the court of appeals of the State of New York was organized under the new judiciary system in 1870, with Hon. Sanford E. Church, chief judge; William F. Allen, Martin Grover, Rufus W. Peckham, Charles A. Rapallo, Charles Andrews, and Charles J. Folger, associated judges.  Thus composed, the court proceeded to business in July, 1870, and its labors thenceforward have been incessant, questions of great importance being submitted for final decision.  Principles of law and of government reaching far into the future, and the establishment of precedents which cannot be easily set aside, are continually arising for adjudication and settlement, and the decision of these questions, often involving great labor and learning, is the legitimate work of the court of appeals.  Hence the great responsibility and labor of its bench.  An idea of the extent and variety of the questions submitted for its decision may be gathered from the fact that this court hears and decides more than six hundred cases annually.  In a recent able historical review of the proceedings of this court we find the following remark:  "Beyond dispute, the New York court of appeals stands to-day second only in importance, and at least equal in ability, to the chief national tribunal at Washington."

     Judge Miller was nominated to fill the first vacancy on the bench of the court of appeals, occasioned by the death of Judge Peckham.  He was brought before the convention by a son of the late judge, Hon. Rufus W. Peckham, of Albany, who paid a just and eloquent tribute to the character and services of Judge Miller, which was responded to by his unanimous nomination.  Judge Elias J. Beach, in seconding the nomination, said he thought it "peculiarly fit and appropriate that Mr. Peckham, a leading practitioner from the Third Judicial district, and a son of the late Judge Peckham, whose sudden death, so deeply lamented by the whole profession, had caused the vacancy in the highest court of the State about to be filled, should present the name of a man who should so fully meet the standard of excellence which his filial attachment must necessarily demand of one voluntarily sought as the official successor of his deceased father."

     Upon his nomination, the leading papers of both political parties approved the action of the convention.  Said the Albany Evening Journal, "During the services of Judge Miller upon the bench, he has discharged its duties with fidelity, integrity, and impartiality, in the highest degree creditable.  His knowledge of the law is comprehensive, and the bent of his mind eminently judicial.  The party could not do otherwise than recognize such conspicuous merit."

     The favorable opinions so unanimously expressed of Judge Miller's merits as a jurist were effectively indorsed at the autumn election by a majority of over fifty thousand in the State.  In his own county his majority was about the same as that received at his first election to the Supreme Court in 1861, showing that, as a candidate for the higher judicial office, his popularity had not depreciated among those most intimately acquainted with him.

     His career in the court of appeals has been active and influential, and his labors unremitting.  Enabled by his thorough training and discipline to dispose of a vast amount of work, he and his associates have succeeded in disposing of the accumulations on the docket, so that now, at each term, every case ready for argument can be heard and decided.

     His opinions are found scattered through eighty odd volumes of Supreme Court reports, which have been published since he took his place on the bench, and some ten volumes of reports of the court of appeals, since his connection with the latter, settling grave and important questions, which are cited and followed in every court and in almost every case.  His opinions have been characterized by a competent critic as remarkable specimens of clearness and simplicity of style, without any straining at effect or indulgence in brilliant metaphor.  His thoughts are crystallized in plain, forcible language, and his opinions abound in evidences of deep study and careful and comprehensive knowledge of the subject upon which they are rendered.

     A distinguished judge, now deceased (Judge Strong), tersely summed up Judge Miller's qualifications thus:  "He has one of the best balanced judicial minds in the State."  Quick, active, both in faculty and temperament, he is at the same time calm and reflective.  Being of a remarkably active mind, the rapidity with which he often reaches results is no evidence of a want of thoroughness or of a hasty judgment; on the contrary, his wide range of available information and mental activity enable him to [p. 209] generalize rapidly and at the same time accurately.  One of the most marked peculiarities of his mental organization is his power of concentration, by which he is enabled to write and carry on a conversation at the same time.

     Although an active and sagacious politician, especially in the early part of his life, he has always subordinated politics to business, and accepted no office except in the line of his profession.  A personal friend and associated of Mr. Van Buren, he affiliated with the Free-soil branch of the Democracy in 1848.  At the breaking out of the Rebellion in 1861 he earnestly espoused the Union cause, and delivered the first address made in Columbia county in favor of the vigorous persecution of the war.  He has always been a Democrat, and has adhered firmly to the principles of the party, but he has never been a mere partisan nor an office-seeker.  Since the commencement of his judicial career he has participated but little in politics.  Yet he is the only citizen of Columbia county, since Mr. Van Buren, who has been elected to a State office.

     Judge Miller married Alice E., daughter of Peyton N. Farrell, Esq., of Greenport, Columbia Co., N. Y.  By this union he has had five children, two of whom are now living, viz.:  Margaret Miller and Peyton F. Miller, who is a lawyer and engaged in the practice of his profession in the city of Albany, N. Y.

     While this brief sketch is being written (July, 1878), Judge Miller, with a portion of his family, is absent in Europe, seeking rest and recuperation form his exhausting labors.