Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dead at 79, debate now on replacement


Courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court

Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, in 2005.

Alex Hanson

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the leading conservative voice on the nation’s highest court, was found dead Saturday while attending a private gathering in Texas. Scalia was 79. 

Scalia was attending a private party at the Cibolo Creek Ranch near Marfa, Texas, the San Antonio Express News reported Saturday. Law enforcement told several news organizations that Scalia told friends he was not feeling well, went to bed and was found unresponsive when he did not wake up for breakfast.

“I am saddened to report that our colleague Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away,” said Chief Justice John Roberts in a statement. “He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues. His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he so loyally served.”

While many, including liberals who often disagreed with his legal opinions, offered condolences, the news quickly turned into a political battle about his replacement on the court.

The death comes during a tumultuous election year and during the last year of President Obama’s term in office. The U.S. Senate, now led by a 54 Republican majority, would need to confirm any Supreme Court justice made by the president. 

Republicans, both elected in Congress and those running for president, quickly said that a nomination should be up to the next president, not during Obama’s lame-duck term. No nomination would leave the court with an empty seat for almost a year. 

Obama was in California on Saturday, and after a day without any public events planned, made a statement, praising Scalia’s service and said he would nominate a successor following his death.

“I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibility to nominate a successor in due time,” Obama said. “There will be plenty of time for me to do so and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a full hearing and timely vote.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement Saturday, while also praising Scalia, that the vacancy on the court should not be filled until a new president is elected.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” McConnell said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Obama should quickly nominate a replacement, citing “so many important issues” before the court this term.

“It would be unprecedented in recent history for the Supreme Court to go a year with a vacant seat,” Reid said. “Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate’s most essential constitutional responsibilities.”

While fiery comments from GOP candidates later on in Saturday’s GOP debate made headlines, candidates were asked about the issue to start the debate.

Donald Trump said Obama is likely to make a nomination but urged McConnell to “delay, delay, delay” any move to confirm one.

Ted Cruz, who was the first candidate out with a written statement Saturday, said the next president should decide.

“We’re not going to give up the Supreme Court for a generation by allowing President Obama to make one more appointee,” Cruz said.

John Kasich, often seen as a moderate voice in the race, joined the conservative voices in saying the next president should chose a nominee.

“The country’s so divided right now, and now we’re going to rush into a another partisan fight,” Kasich said. “I would like the president for once here to put the country first. The people will understand what’s at stake. I think we ought to let the country decide who is going to run that Supreme Court with a vote by the people of the United States of America.”

Jeb Bush agreed and said he would look for candidates who have a record of defending conservative accomplishments in the judiciary. 

Ben Carson mentioned that lifetime terms to the Supreme Court, which are mandated by the U.S. Constitution, should be looked at because justices live much longer than they did at the founding of the country.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said while she did not hold many of the same views as Scalia, he was a dedicated public servant. A nominee to replace him should be chosen and considered, she said.

“The Republicans in the Senate and on the campaign trail who are calling for Justice Scalia’s seat to remain vacant dishonor our Constitution,” Clinton said. “The Senate has a constitutional responsibility here that it cannon abdicate for partisan political reasons.”

Steffen Schmidt, university professor of political science at Iowa State, said the death will shake up the 2016 presidential election. 

“This changes the 2016 race for the White House because now every candidate in both parties will need to address the opening,” Schmidt said. 

Schmidt added that any nomination Obama submits to the Senate would create a “circus,” as Republican opponents would likely fight any choice by the president.

With one seat now empty, the court is composed of four justices appointed by Republican presidents and four by Democratic presidents. 

Several Republicans, including Grassley and Cruz, have said there is an 80-year precedent for not confirming a nominee during a presidential election year. 

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is still on the court, was nominated by president Ronald Reagan in 1987 and confirmed by the Senate, 97-0, in 1988, an election year. 

Iowa’s U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would play a pivotal role in confirming any nominee, said Saturday in a statement that a nominee should not be chosen until a new president is elected.

“Given the huge divide in the country, and the fact that this President, above all others, has made no bones about his goal to the use the courts to circumvent Congress and push through his own agenda, it only makes sense that we defer to the American people who will elect a new president to select the next Supreme Court justice,” Grassley said.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, praised Scalia in a statement, but did not say in the statement whether she supported the idea of waiting until the next administration to make an appointment.

U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, weighed in with a tweet Saturday:

Requests for comment on their position on a nominee from the offices of Ernst, King and U.S. Reps. David Young, R-Iowa, Rod Blum, R-Iowa, and Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, were not returned as of Saturday night.

Former President George W. Bush said in a statement that he and his wife Laura sent condolences to Scalia’s family, while also praising Scalia’s service on the court.

“He was a towering figure and important judge on our nation’s highest court,” Bush said. “He brought intellect, good judgement and wit to the bench, and he will be missed by his colleagues and our country.”

Even though Obama plans to nominate a successor, Scalia’s vacancy may have a profound impact on the current term. Even though several high-profile cases have already been heard, decisions from the court are not final until they are handed down.

If the now eight-member court hands down a decision on a 4-4 vote, the lower court decision will stand. 

The court is set to hand down decisions on unions, affirmative action in education and abortion rights, just to name a few, during the summer of 2016.

Scalia, born March 11, 1936 in New Jersey, was appointed to the court by former President Ronald Reagan in 1986.