Morrison was a classmate of Lyman Trumbull at Bacon Academy in Colchester, CT. He graduated from Yale with the 1876 Democratic presidential nominee, Samuel J. Tilden. At Yale, he became a member of the Skull and Bones 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.
Before the Civil War, Waite opposed slavery and the southern slave states withdrawal from the Union. In 1871, with William M. Evarts and Caleb Cushing, he represented the United States as counsel before the Alabama Tribunal at Geneva, and, in 1874, he presided over the Ohio constitutional convention. In the same year he was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to succeed Judge Salmon P. Chase as Chief Justice of the United States, and he held this position until his death at March 23, 1888 in Washington, D.C. President Grant had offered the Chief Justiceship to among other Senator Roscoe Conkling and Democrat Caleb Cushing before he settled on Waite who learned of his nomination by a telegram.
The nomination was not well-received. 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."
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, he 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 decisions practically overturned the Fourteenth Amendment. 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 long into the Twentieth century.Reynolds v. United States
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, he 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 .
He 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 decisions 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 had studied together at Yale College.
There is reason to believe that Justice Waite was not highly regarded by everyone. One quote, attributed to one of his brother Justices, call him "an experiment no President has a right to make with our Court".
Like his successor Melville Fuller he is credited with being an efficient and capable administrator of the Court.
"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".
For protection against abuses by legislatures the People must resort to the polls, not the courts.