William W. Van Ness was born in Claverack, NY, in 1776. He did not attend college but commenced the study of law, first in the Columbia County office of John Bay and later in the New York City office of James Kent. He was admitted to the bar in 1792 and moved to the city of Hudson, where he established a lucrative practice. With Alexander Hamilton, he was a defense attorney in the famous Croswell trial.
Van Ness was a member of the State Assembly from 1804 to 1806 and, following the decision of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature in People v Croswell, he introduced a bill in Legislature changing the common law crime of libel. Enacted as L. 1804, ch. 90, it permitted the truth of the statement to be asserted as a defense to a criminal prosecution for libel. At the Constitutional Convention of 1821, sixteen years later, this principle guaranteeing the right of freedom of speech became part of New York's second constitution.
In 1807, William W. Van Ness was appointed an Associate Judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature in place of Daniel Tompkins, who had been inaugurated Governor of New York. In 1811, he joined in Chief Justice Kent's opinion in the landmark blasphemy case of People v Ruggles. Presiding at a sitting of the Court of Oyer and Terminer in Richmond County in 1817, Justice Van Ness issued an important decision in the case of People v Christian Smith, drawing a "distinction between auricular confessions made to a priest 'in the course of discipline according to the canons of the church,' and those made to a minister of the gospel in confidence, merely as a friend or adviser."
William W. Van Ness was elected a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention in 1821 and was an active participant in the debates. When the draft constitution was approved by the majority of convention delegates, he was among the minority that did not sign the document. Also in that minority were Chancellor James Kent, Chief Justice Ambrose Spencer, U.S. Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins, Jacob R. Van Rensselaer, Stephen Van Rensselaer, James Tallmadge, Jr., Jonas Platt, and Peter A. Jay.
In January 1820, Justice William W. Van Ness was tried before the Court for the Trial of Impeachments on a charge of using his office to obtain the charter for the American Bank. Although acquitted, he never recovered from the experience and his health declined. On May 1, 1822 William W. Van Ness resigned from the New York Supreme Court of Judicature and less than a year later, on February 27, 1823, he died in Charleston, South Carolina.
Public Papers of Daniel D. Tompkins, Governor of New York, 1807-1817, vol. 2.
"History of the Supreme Court of New York, from 1691 to the Revolution of 1776." Medico-Legal Journal, vol. 22, Issue 4 (1904-1905).