Morrison "Mott" Waite, 7th Chief Justice of the United States

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Morrison Remick "Mott" Waite

Birthdate: (71)
Death: March 23, 1888 (71)
Immediate Family:

Son of Henry Matson Waite, Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Connecticut and Maria Waite
Husband of Amelia Champlin Waite
Father of Henry Seldon Waite; Christopher Champlin Waite; George Francis Waite; Edward Tinker Waite and Mary Frances Waite
Brother of Richard Waite

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About Morrison "Mott" Waite, 7th Chief Justice of the United States

Morrison Remick Waite, nicknamed "Mott" (November 29, 1816 – March 23, 1888) was the seventh Chief Justice of the United States from 1874 to 1888.

Early life and education

He was born at Lyme, Connecticut, the son of Henry Matson Waite, who was a judge of the Superior Court and associate judge of the Supreme Court of Connecticut in 1834–1854 and chief justice of the latter in 1854–1857.

Morrison was a classmate of Lyman Trumbull at Bacon Academy in Colchester, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale University in 1837 with the 1876 Democratic presidential nominee, Samuel J. Tilden.

At Yale, he became a member of the Skull and Bones Society and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837, and soon afterwards moved to Maumee, Ohio, where he studied law in the office of Samuel L. Young. He was admitted to the bar in 1839. He served one term as mayor of Maumee. He married Amelia Warner in 1840. He had three sons with her — Henry Seldon, Christopher Champlin, Edward T, and one daughter Mary F. In 1850, he moved to Toledo, and he soon came to be recognized as a leader of the state bar.

Political and legal career

Waite was an extremely successful attorney in Ohio. Upon admission to the state bar in 1839, he established a law firm in Maumee with his former mentor, opening a branch office when he moved to Toledo in 1850. When his partner retired in 1856, Waite built a prosperous new firm with his brother Richard.

Waite was an active member of the Whig Party, and was elected to a term in the Ohio Senate in 1849–1850. He made two unsuccessful bids for the United States Senate, and was offered (but declined) a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court. In the mid-1850s, because of his opposition to slavery, Waite joined the fledgling Republican Party and helped to organize it in his home state.

In 1871, Waite received a surprise invitation to represent the United States (along with William M. Evarts and Caleb Cushing) as counsel before the Alabama Tribunal at Geneva. It was his first national exposure, and won him acclaim when he successfully won a $15 million award from the tribunal. His star rose to such a level that in 1872, he presided over the Ohio constitutional convention.

Supreme Court nomination

President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Waite as Chief Justice on January 19, 1874, after a political circus surrounding the appointment. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had died in May 1873, and Grant waited six months before first offering the seat in November to political henchman Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, who declined.

After ruling out a promotion of a sitting Associate Justice to Chief (despite much lobbying from the legal community for prominent Justice Samuel Freeman Miller), Grant offered the Chief Justiceship to Senators Oliver Morton of Indiana and Timothy Howe of Wisconsin, then to his own Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, before finally submitting to the Senate his nomination of Attorney General George H. Williams on December 1. A month later, however, Grant withdrew the nomination at Williams' request after charges of corruption made his confirmation all but certain to fail. One day after withdrawing Williams, Grant nominated Democrat and former Attorney General Caleb Cushing, but again withdrew it after Republican Senators alleged Civil War-era connections between Cushing and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Finally, after persistent lobbying from Ohioans including Interior Secretary Columbus Delano, on January 19, 1874, Grant nominated the little-known Waite who learned of his nomination by a telegram.

The nomination was not well-received in political circles. Former Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles remarked of the nomination that "It is a wonder that Grant did not pick up some old acquaintance, who was a stage driver or bartender, for the place," and the political journal The Nation said "Mr Waite stands in the front-rank of second-rank lawyers." Nationwide sentiment, however, was simply relief that a non-divisive and competent choice had been made, and Waite was confirmed unanimously as Chief Justice on January 22, receiving his commission the same day.

The Waite Court, 1874–1888

Chief Justice Waite never became a significant intellectual force on the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, managerial and social skill, "especially his good humor and sensitivity to others, helped him to maintain a remarkably harmonious and productive court." During Waite's tenure, it decided some 3,470 cases. In part, the large number of cases decided and the variety of issues confronted reflected the lack of discretion the Court had at the time in hearing appeals from lower federal and state courts. However, Waite demonstrated an ability to get his brethren to reach decisions and write opinions without delay. His own work habits and output were formidable—he drafted one-third of these opinions.

In matters of regulation over economic activity, he supported broad national authority, stating his opinion that federal commerce powers must “keep pace with the progress of the country.” In the same vein, a primary theme in his opinions was the balance of federal and state authority. These opinions influenced Supreme Court jurisprudence well into the 20th century.

This notion was also evident in the Waite Court's decisions dealing with the scope and meaning of the Reconstruction Amendments and the rights of blacks in the south.

In United States v. Cruikshank the court overturned the convictions of three men accused of massacring at least 105 blacks and three whites in the Colfax massacre outside the Grant Parish, Louisiana, courthouse on Easter 1873. The convictions were thrown out not because the statutes themselves were unconstitutional but because the indictments under which the men were charged were infirm, and did not specifically allege that the murders were committed on account of the victims' race (“We may suspect that race was the cause of the hostility, but it is not so averred.”

Waite's social and political orientation was apparent in the Court's response to claims by other groups. In Minor v. Happersett (1875), using the restricted definition of national citizenship and the 14th Amendment as set forth in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), Waite upheld the states' right to deny women the franchise. However, Waite also sympathized with the women's rights movement and supported the admission of women to the Supreme Court bar.

After suffering a breakdown, probably due to overwork, he refused to retire. Almost to the moment of his death, he was still drafting opinions and leading the Court.

In the cases that grew out of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and especially in those that involved the interpretation of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, he sympathized with the general tendency of the court to restrict the further extension of the powers of the Federal government. In a particularly notable ruling in United States v. Cruikshank, the court struck down the Enforcement Act, ruling that "The very highest duty of the States, when they entered into the Union under the Constitution, was to protect all persons within their boundaries in the enjoyment of these 'unalienable rights with which they were endowed by their Creator.' Sovereignty, for this purpose, rests alone with the States. It is no more the duty or within the power of the United States to punish for a conspiracy to falsely imprison or murder within a State, than it would be to punish for false imprisonment or murder itself." He concluded that "We may suspect that race was the cause of the hostility but is it not so averred." His belief was that white moderates should set the rules of racial relations in the South, which reflected the majority of the Court and the people of the United States, who were tired of the bitter racial strife involved with the affairs of Reconstruction. This belief backfired when arch-segregationists in the South regained power and legislated the infamous Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised African-Americans in the South. These laws lasted well into the 20th century.

In his opinion of Munn v. Illinois (1877), which was one of a group of six Granger cases involving Populist-inspired state legislation to fix maximum rates chargeable by grain elevators and railroads, he said that when a business or private property was "affected with a public interest" it was subject to governmental regulation. Thus, the Court was ruling against charges that Granger laws constituted encroachment of private property without due process of law and conflicted with the Fourteenth Amendment. The ardent New Dealers in the Franklin Roosevelt administration looked to Munn v. Illinois to guide them in matters like due process, commerce and contract clauses.

Waite concurred with the majority in the Head Money Cases (1884), the Ku-Klux Case (United States v. Harris, 1883), the Civil Rights Cases (1883), Pace v. Alabama (1883), and the Legal Tender Cases (including Juillard v. Greenman) (1883). Among his own most important opinions were those in the Enforcement Act Cases (1875), the Sinking Fund Cases (1878), the Railroad Commission Cases (1886) and the Telephone Cases (1887).

In 1876 when there was talk about a third term for President Grant some Republicans turned to Waite as they believed he was a better presidential nominee for the Republican Party than the scandal-tainted Grant. Waite turned down the idea arguing "my duty was not to make it a stepping stone to someone else but to preserve its purity and make my own name as honorable as that of any of my predecessors." In the aftermath of the presidential election of 1876 he refused to sit on the Electoral Commission that decided the electoral votes of Florida because of his close friendship of GOP presidential nominee Rutherford B. Hayes and his classmateship with the Democratic presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden with whom Waite studied at Yale College.

As Chief Justice he swore in Presidents Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland.

Justice Waite's statement during a Fourteenth Amendment case may be the original basis for the recognition of corporations having the legal rights of a person: "The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does."

Champion of education opportunities for blacks

He was one of the Peabody Trustees of Southern Education and was a vocal advocate to aiding schools for the education of blacks in the south.

Frankfurter's view of Waite

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said of him:

"He did not confine the constitution within the limits of his own experience.... The disciplined and disinterested lawyer in him transcended the bounds of the environment within which he moved and the views of the client whom he served at the bar".

Death and legacy

Chief Justice Waite died unexpectedly of pneumonia. This created a stir in Washington, as there had been no hint that his illness was serious. His condition had been treated as confidential, in part to avoid alarming his wife who was in California. The Washington Post devoted its entire front page to his demise. Large crowds joined in the mourning. Except for Justices Braley and Matthews, all the justices accompanied his body on the special train that went to Toledo. Mrs. Waite came by train from California, arriving just in time for the funeral. Published reports indicated the Chief Justice would be buried in a family plot he had purchased in Forest Hill Cemetery, but he was not in fact interred there.

For unknown reasons, his remains were not interred in the family plot, but are interred under a handsome monument in Woodlawn Cemetery, Plot: Section 42, by the river in Toledo, Ohio.

Waite High School (Toledo, Ohio) is named in his honor.


“ For protection against abuses by legislatures the People must resort to the polls, not the courts. ”

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