He studied at the University of Heidelberg, and then graduated from the law department of the University of Pennsylvania in 1859. He was admitted to the bar of New York in 1860, and established himself in practice in New York City. He represented many corporate interests, and paid special attention to real estate and constitutional law. In 1862, he was elected lecturer on political economy in Cooper Union. He was on the staff of the Commercial Advertiser from 1863 to 1864, was a founder of the American Free-trade League in 1864, and in 1865 published the Social Science Review. Taking an active part in the movement for the purification of municipal politics, he was chosen secretary of the Committee of Seventy in 1870, and drafted the charter that was advocated by that committee. In 1876 he was appointed by Governor Samuel J. Tilden on a commission to devise a plan for the government of cities, in 1879 acted as counsel for the New York Board of Trade and Transportation and Chamber of Commerce in the investigation of abuses in railroad management, which resulted in the appointment of a board of railroad commissioners for the state of New York.
He was also a leader in the movement that resulted in the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, drafting the interstate commerce bill in conjunction with the committee of the United States Senate. In 1885 he was appointed by President Cleveland a commissioner to examine and report on the relations between the railroads and the governments of western Europe. An essay that he read before the American Bar Association on “Slip-shod Legislation” led to the appointment in 1888 of a committee of the legislature to consider reforms in the drafting of laws.
He was a frequent writer on economical and political subjects, contributed articles on “Cities,” “Legislation,” “Monopolies,” “Railways,” and “Representation” to John J. Lalor's Cyclopaedia of Political Science and United States History (1881-1883), and is the author of:
- Representative Government and Personal Representation (Philadelphia, 1870)
- Suffrage in Cities (1878)
- Hindrances to Prosperity (1879)
- Constitutional History and Political Development in the United States (New York, 1882; 4th ed., 1888)
- Railways in the United States (1912)
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- Foord, Life and Public Services of Simon Sterne (1903)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Sterne, Simon". Encyclopedia Americana.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Sterne, Simon". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.