During his fourteen years as chief justice, Waite stood firm for the understanding that the Reconstruction era amendments had not drastically altered the U.S. constitutional system.
Waite was chief justice during a time of great change in the United States. The meaning of freedom for the four million former slaves was still unsettled, although the nation had already begun its retreat from the promises of Reconstruction. Industry was growing rapidly, and big business attempted to use the Fourteenth Amendment, intended to protect the former slaves in all the rights of citizenship, to defend its property interests against government regulation. Therefore, the most important issues considered by the Waite Court were the meaning of the Reconstruction
Morrison R. Waite
Waite’s nomination by President Ulysses S. Grant was completely unexpected. Three previous candidates political cronies of the scandal-ridden Grant administration were unacceptable to the Senate. Although relatively unknown, Waite was a man of character and integrity. The son of a Connecticut state chief justice, Waite graduated from Yale in 1837, then studied law with his father before moving to Ohio. There he established a successful law practice, served as a Whig in the state legislature, and helped organize the state’s Republican party. After the Civil War (1861-1865), he distinguished himself as a member of the Geneva Commission, which settled claims involving the British-produced Confederate ship Alabama. Waite had no previous judicial experience and had never argued a case before the Court when he took his seat.
Vilified for his narrow interpretations of the Enforcement Acts (1879-1871) and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Waite was accused of abandoning the former slaves to the mercies of their former owners.
However, Waite had not completely turned his back on the needs of the freed slaves. Although he declared two sections of the First Enforcement Act (May, 1870) unconstitutional in United States v. Reese, he nevertheless suggested that indictments that averred race as a factor in voting rights cases under the Fifteenth Amendment would be acceptable in federal court. In addition, Waite voted with the majority in Ex parte Yarbrough
Overall, the Waite Court’s civil rights decisions did not display the overt racism that was characteristic of the Fuller Court that followed it. The justices steered a middle course and ruled in the Civil Rights Cases
Waite’s preference for state-centered federalism made him amenable to state regulation of the economy in an era when the Court was moving toward the protection of big business
Waite was a good, if not great, chief justice. He is underrated today for two reasons: civil rights decisions that became unpopular after the Civil Rights movement, however much they reflected the tenor of his time, and a lackluster writing style. However, Waite’s character, integrity, and leadership abilities helped restore a dignity to the Court that had been lacking ever since the Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision.
Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004. Howard, John R. The Shifting Wind: The Supreme Court and Civil Rights from Reconstruction to Brown. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. Magrath, C. Peter. Morrison R. Waite: The Triumph of Character. New York: Macmillan, 1963. Stephenson, D. Grier. “The Chief Justice as Leader: The Case of Morrison R. Waite.” William and Mary Law Review 14 (1973). Stephenson, D. Grier. The Waite Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
Civil Rights Cases
Cruikshank, United States v.
Minor v. Happersett
Munn v. Illinois
Reese, United States v.
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