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Scalia’s Death Begins Partisan Battle, Shifts Court’s Balance

Antonin Scalia, a stalwart conservative justice on the Supreme Court since 1986, was found dead Saturday while visiting a luxury resort in Texas.

Scalia, 79, died of apparent natural causes at the resort in West Texas, the San Antonio Express-News reported, citing federal officials. The paper said he was a guest at the Cibolo Creek Ranch, a resort in the Big Bend region south of Marfa. 

Scalia’s death sets the stage for a bruising battle over his replacement, a partisan fight that would ripple into the presidential campaign. Senior Republicans in the Senate said Scalia shouldn’t be replaced until after the election, while the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee urged Obama to nominate a successor. 

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama extended their “deepest condolences” to Scalia’s family in a statement from Deputy White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz. Obama was informed of Scalia’s passing on Saturday afternoon.

But within hours, both sides began to stake out their positions as senior Senate Republicans said the decision should wait until after the presidential election in November and Democrats urged a quick decision. Obama said he would nominate a replacement in “due time” and said he expected the Senate to act on it.

“These are responsibilities that I take seriously, and so should everyone,” Obama said in a statement from California. “They’re bigger than one party. They are about our democracy. They are about the institution to which Justice Scalia dedicated his professional life, and making sure it continues to function as the beacon of justice to which our founders envisioned.”

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said the next president should select a nominee for the high court. 

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” McConnell said in a statement. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”

In a sign of how quickly the political lines were being formed, Grassley told a reporter Saturday afternoon that he wouldn’t “make any prognostication on anything about the future because there’s so many balls in the air when those things are considered” and hours later issued a statement saying the replacement should wait until the election is over. 

“It’s been standard practice over the last nearly 80 years that Supreme Court nominees are not nominated and confirmed during a presidential election year,” Grassley said in the statement. “Given the huge divide in the country, and the fact that this President, above all others, has made no bones about his goal to 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.”

But Democrats want Obama to nominate a new justice. 

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. urged Obama to move quickly. “The president can and should send the Senate a nominee right away.  With so many important issues pending before the Supreme Court, the Senate has a responsibility to fill vacancies as soon as possible. It would be unprecedented in recent history for the Supreme Court to go a year with a vacant seat. Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate’s most essential Constitutional responsibilities.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking member of Senate Judiciary, also urged the president to propose a new justice. “The Supreme Court of the United States is too important  to our democracy for it to be understaffed for partisan reasons,’ he said. “The President and the Senate should get to work without delay to nominate, consider and confirm the next justice to serve on the Supreme Court.”

Scalia’s death also throws into question the court’s ideological balance for the remainder of the current term and the timing of naming his replacement could also ripple into the term that begins in the fall. Scalia was one of four reliably conservative justices. His absence could change the outcome of decisions in the current term and the choice of cases to take in the next. 

Obama and many Democrats are likely to see the court’s vacancy as an opportunity to install a more liberal justice. Republicans are likely to resist, with an eye toward the possibility that a Republican victory in the presidential election in November would enable the new president to make a conservative appointment. Both sides will see a confirmation conflict as an opportunity to score points with their supporters and rally voters to their cause.

Scalia, a justice who celebrated his Italian-American heritage, was not only a conservative voice on the court, but he was also the author of some of the more colorful opinions, whether for the majority or the minority. Along with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and associate justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas, Scalia was one of the court’s reliable conservative votes often arrayed against Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy often was the swing vote.

Scalia’s opinions often drew attention to his colorful choice of words, attracting favorably comment from those who agreed and criticism from those who didn’t.

The many tributes that poured in from lawmakers after his death reflected both his legal views and his way of expressing them.

Paying Tribute

McConnell called Scalia an “unwavering champion of a timeless document that unites each of us as Americans…Through the sheer force of his intellect and his legendary wit, this giant of American jurisprudence almost single handedly revived an approach to constitutional interpretation that prioritized the text and original meaning of the Constitution.” 

“Justice Scalia was an intellectual giant,” Grassley said. “His originalist interpretation of the Constitution set the standard for the court. He had an unwavering dedication to the founding document that has guided our country for nearly 230 years. His humor, devotion to the Constitution and quick wit will be remembered for years to come.”

Reid called Scalia a dedicated jurist and public service. “We had our differences and I disagreed with many of his opinions,” he added.

Hillary Clinton, a former member of the Senate and now a Democratic candidate for president, said she didn’t hold Scalia’s views, but “he was a dedicated public servant who brought energy and passion to the bench.” She criticized Republicans who want to delay naming a replacement, saying they “dishonor our constitution.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who once worked as a clerk at the Supreme Court and is now seeking the Republican presidential nomination, said in a tweet that “our nation mourns the loss of one of the greatest justices in history.” 

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