Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, was found dead of a heart attack Saturday, raising questions about the future of the high court during a presidential election year.
President Barack Obama announced Saturday night that he would nominate someone to fill Scalia’s seat on the court, setting up a battle with the GOP-controlled Senate during Obama’s final year in office. But before the partisans head to their respective corners, they paused to remember the late justice, who Obama called, “one of the towering legal figures of his time.”
“A brilliant legal mind with an energetic style, incisive wit, and colorful opinions, he influenced a generation of judges, lawyers and students and profoundly shaped the legal landscape,” Obama said.
Obama also described Scalia outside the courtroom, as an avid hunter and a lover of opera. He noted Scalia’s close friendship with one of the court’s liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
At a joint appearance in early 2015 , where Ginsburg admitted she was “not 100 (percent) sober” during the president’s State of the Union address, Scalia remarked on their friendship, asking, “Why don’t you call us the odd couple?”
Beyond his friendships on the high court, many commentators remembered Scalia’s love of family.
In 2011, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, one of five current senators who served in the chamber during Scalia’s confirmation, recalled how the justice’s family, including his nine children, packed the Judiciary Committee room during his nomination hearing.
“That sight impressed on me Justice Scalia’s deep love for family and the sacrifice that family makes when someone like him is devoted to public service,” Hatch said in a floor speech honoring 25 years since Scalia’s confirmation. “He is also a man of deep faith and love for our country and the values on which it is founded.”
The Senate confirmed Scalia, the first Italian-American justice, nearly 30 years ago, in September 1986, by a vote of 98-0. President Ronald Reagan nominated the conservative stalwart to the bench in June of that year.
Prior to joining the high court, Scalia served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. A Roman Catholic, he was born in Trenton, N.J., in 1936 and studied at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, as well as Georgetown and Harvard.
In 2011, Scalia returned to the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify on the constitutional role of judges.
“I believe that the role of judges under the Constitution is an important, but limited one,” he said. “Unless the Constitution provides otherwise, the people through their elected representatives govern themselves. In determining the meaning of the Constitution, judges are to apply the intent of the framers, since that is the extent of the limitation on self-government that the people have agreed to impose on themselves.”
Over Scalia’s nearly 30 years on the bench, he was a staunch conservative voice. He was a self-described “originalist,” which he described in March 2005 as a way of interpreting the Constitution “to begin with the text and to give that text the meaning that it bore when it was adopted by the people.”
That jurisprudence defined his years on the Supreme Court, siding with fellow conservatives in his votes and in his often sharply worded writings. After the court’s recent landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which effectively legalized same-sex marriage, Scalia authored a dissenting opinion and argued that the court was overstepping its bounds.
“I write separately to call attention to this court’s threat to American democracy,” Scalia began his dissent in the same-sex marriage case.
Scalia’s views were celebrated by Republicans, but drew the ire of many Democrats, particularly Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid recently chided Scalia on the Senate floor, after the justice made a statement during a oral arguments for an affirmative-action in December that African-American students fare well at “slower-track schools.” Reid called the statements “racist in application, if not intent.”
On Saturday, Reid noted he often disagreed with Scalia, but also described him as a “brilliant man.”
“We had our differences and I disagreed with many of his opinions, but he was a dedicated jurist and public servant,” Reid said. “I offer my condolences to his family.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Scalia “an unwavering champion of a timeless document that unites each of us as Americans” and “a giant of American jurisprudence.”
Though McConnell and Reid agreed on the late justice’s intellect, they diverged on whether the Senate should confirm his successor this year .
Scalia’s death leaves an evenly divided bench, with four justices nominated by a Democratic president, and four nominated by a Republican. His death comes as the court is set to decide on several high-profile issues this year, including cases relating congressional redistricting, environmental regulations, abortion, and Obama’s immigration policies.
Obama said that he planned to fulfill his “constitutional responsibility” to nominate a successor.
“There will be plenty of time for me to do that and for the Senate to give that nominee a fair hearing and a timely vote,” Obama said.
But questions remain as to whether a GOP-controlled Senate would confirm an Obama nominee, especially during his final year in office and in a presidential election year.
McConnell and other Republicans argued that a new president should fill the vacancy, while Reid of Nevada argued the president should quickly nominate a successor, who the Senate should swiftly confirm.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, appeared to side with McConnell in a statement, while the committee’s ranking member, Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., argued that a nominee should be confirmed this year.
The last Supreme Court justice confirmed by the Senate was Elena Kagan in 2010, whose confirmation vote fell along mostly party lines. The last time the Senate confirmed a nominee in a presidential election year was Justice Anthony Kennedy in 1988, during Reagan’s final year in office. A Congressional Research Service report noted that in recent years, Supreme Court confirmations have lasted an average of 68 days.
Gillian Roberts contributed to this report.
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Senate Leaders Divided After Antonin Scalia’s Death
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