Morrison Remick Waite

Morrison Remick Waite (1816-1888), seventh chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was a skillful administrator of the nation's highest bench.

Born in Lyme, Conn., on Nov. 29, 1816, Morrison R. Waite graduated from Yale in 1837, read law, and began to practice in Maumee, Ohio, moving later to Toledo. A lawyer rather than a politician, he served in the Ohio Legislature (1849-1850) as a Whig. Later he was a Republican but played no conspicuous role in the politics of the Civil War or the Reconstruction era.

Capable and noncontroversial, Waite was named by President Ulysses S. Grant to join Caleb Cushing and William M. Evarts as counsel before the tribunal hearing the Alabama Claims against England for Civil War damages. Waite helped prevent inflammatory peripheral issues from disrupting negotiations, and the United States was awarded $15,500,000 in a decision of major significance in the history of the settlement of international disputes by arbitration.

A prolonged competition for the chief justiceship of the Supreme Court followed the death of Salmon P. Chase in 1873. Bypassing other strong contenders, Grant in 1874 finally named Waite. Respectability and the need to end the leadership crisis won Waite swift confirmation.

On the Supreme Court, Waite's demeanor foreshad-owed the doctrine of judicial restraint. Unlike chief justices John Marshall and Roger B. Taney, he sought less to lead than to follow the thinking of the nation. Tired of the era's racial controversies and convinced that white moderates in the South should establish the racial rules for the region, the Waite Court weakened the concept of national citizenship based on the 14th Amendment. In cases involving violent interruption of a political meeting, refusal to allow a registered black American to vote, and a lynching, the Federal government was not sustained in efforts to protect black citizens. That responsibility was left to state governments. Similarly, the Civil Rights Cases (1883) permitted racial segregation in privately owned places of public accommodation. On the other hand, African Americans had been sustained in their right to serve on juries in Strauder v. West Virginia (1880).

Waite's most famous decision was Munn v. Illinois (1877), which upheld the right of state legislatures to enact granger laws, in this case the regulation of grain storage rates. Retrieving a 17th-century English decision, Waite held that legislators could regulate in a matter "affected with a public interest." Later, however, the countervailing interest of the railroads to avoid such regulation was established when Waite, while avoiding express disavowal of the Munn doctrine, permitted a broad reading of the 14th Amendment that limited the power of government to regulate business.

Waite was married in 1840 to Amelia Champlin Warner; of their five children, four lived beyond childhood. Waite died in Washington, D.C., on March 23, 1888.


Further Reading on Morrison Remick Waite

An excellent biography of Waite is C. Peter Magrath, Morrison R. Waite: The Triumph of Character (1963).