Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite

Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite joined the U.S. Supreme Court on March 4, 1874, replacing Chief Justice Salmon Portland Chase. Waite was born on November 29, 1816 in southeastern Connecticut. He graduated from Yale in 1837 and shortly afterward moved to Ohio. After he was admitted to the bar there, he entered private practice.

Waite kept a relatively low profile for most of his early career. He briefly served in the Ohio state legislature, but his aspirations to enter national politics were thwarted when he twice lost elections for the U.S. Congress. Waite also declined an appointment to the Ohio Supreme Court during the Civil War. In the early 1870s, though, he represented the U.S. in an international arbitration proceeding that reviewed claims by the U.S. against Great Britain for damage caused by Confederate warships that had been built in Great Britain. The arbitration commission eventually ordered a $15.5 million award (over $380 million today), which was seen as a successful result. Waite then served as president of the Ohio Constitutional Convention.

On January 19, 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Waite to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on January 21 in a 63-0 vote, and he took the judicial oath about six weeks later. Waite would spend the remaining 14 years of his life on the Court.

Waite left a less memorable legacy than many Chief Justices. He tended to join his colleagues in limiting the effect of the Fourteenth Amendment. For example, he wrote for the Court in Minor v. Happersett, finding that the Privileges or Immunities Clause of this amendment did not guarantee women the right to vote. (The Nineteenth Amendment would supersede this decision in 1920.) Waite also penned the majority opinion in U.S. v. Cruikshank, which ruled that the Second Amendment right to bear arms and the First Amendment right to freedom of assembly applied only to the federal government and not to the states. The Court later overruled this decision, incorporating the First and Second Amendments through the Fourteenth Amendment.

Waite died suddenly on March 23, 1888 in Washington, D.C., just days after issuing a key opinion on patent law in the Telephone Cases. He was returned to Ohio for burial. Chief Justice Melville Weston Fuller replaced him on the Court.

Selected Opinions by Chief Justice Waite:

Reynolds v. U.S. (1878)

Topic: Religion

A party's religious belief cannot be accepted as a justification for committing an overt act made criminal by the law of the land.

U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876)

Topic: Gun Rights

The Second Amendment declares that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed, but this means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress. This is one of the amendments that has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.

U.S. v. Reese (1876)

Topic: Voting & Elections

The power of Congress to legislate on the subject of voting at state elections rests on the Fifteenth Amendment, and it can be exercised by providing a punishment only when the wrongful refusal to receive the vote of a qualified elector at such elections is because of their race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Minor v. Happersett (1875)

Topic: Voting & Elections

A provision in a state constitution that confines the right of voting to male citizens of the United States is not a violation of the federal Constitution. In such a state, women have no right to vote.

Telephone Cases (1888)

Topic: Patents

To procure a patent for a process, the inventor must describe their invention with sufficient clearness and precision to enable those skilled in the matter to understand what their process is, and they must point out some practicable way of putting it into operation, but they are not required to bring the art to the highest degree of perfection.