Antonin Scalia, dies at 79
Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court justice, dies at 79
The senior Supreme Court Associate Justice, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, was found dead at a West Texas ranch.
(CNN)U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the leading conservative voice on the high court, has died at the age of 79, a government source and a family friend told CNN on Saturday.
His death set off an immediate debate about whether President Barack Obama should fill the seat in an election year. Obama said Saturday night that he plans to nominate a replacement, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the nomination should wait until the next president comes into office while top Democrat Harry Reid called for the seat to be filled “right away.”
Scalia died in his sleep during a visit to Texas. A government official said Scalia went to bed Friday night and told friends he wasn’t feeling well. He didn’t get up for breakfast on Saturday morning, and the group he was with for a hunting trip left without him.
Someone at the ranch went in to check on him and found him unresponsive.
The U.S. Marshals Service is helping to arrange for his body to be returned to his home in McLean, Virginia, an official told CNN, not to investigate his death.
They were already present because marshals sometimes help supplement security for traveling justices.
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In a statement, Chief Justice John Roberts said he and other justices were saddened to hear of Scalia’s passing.
“He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues,” Roberts said. “His passing is a great loss to the court and the country he so loyally served. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife Maureen and his family.”
Obama called Scalia’s son, Eugene, to offer his condolences to the entire Scalia family, Deputy White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz said.
Political fight looming
Scalia’s death in an election year sets up a titanic confirmation tussle over his successor on the bench. The already challenging task of getting a Democratic president’s nominee through a Republican-controlled Senate will be made even more difficult as the fight over Scalia’s replacement will likely emerge as a dominant theme of a wild presidential election.
Speaking while on a presidential trip to Rancho Mirage, California, Obama vowed to nominate a successor to Scalia, who he called “a towering legal figure.”
“There will be plenty of time for me to do so and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote,” Obama said. “These are responsibilities that I take seriously, as should everyone. They’re bigger than any one party. They are about our democracy. They’re about the institution to which Justice Scalia dedicated his professional life.”
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Earlier Saturday, McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, called for the vacancy to be filled after Obama’s presidency ends.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,” McConnell said in a statement.
But Reid, who represents Nevada, called for the seat to be filled “right away.”
“With so many important issues pending before the Supreme Court, the Senate has a responsibility to fill vacancies as soon as possible,” Reid said in a statement. “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.”
Major presence on high court
Appointed to the court in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, Scalia was a conservative icon who transformed the court by instilling in it his belief that judges should follow the precise words of the Constitution and not apply a modern interpretation.
He was the first justice of Italian-American heritage and passed through confirmation with a unanimous vote.
Scalia changed oral arguments as he became an active participant with tough questions for advocates.
He will be best known, perhaps, for his landmark decision District of Columbia v. Heller, holding that the Second Amendment protects the right to posses a firearm at home. He was a critic of Roe v. Wade and dissented in last term’s same-sex marriage cases.
He wrote a stinging dissent in the same-sex marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges, calling the decision a “threat to American democracy.”
He believed that marriage should be decided by the people, not the courts.
He was also concerned that some members of the bench might determine that the death penalty is unconstitutional.
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Scalia caused a stir as recently as December when he made controversial comments during a hearing about the future of a program at the University of Texas that takes race into consideration as one factor of admissions.
Scalia pushed a point that had been made in some friend of the court briefs filed in the case. It concerns a theory called “mismatch” popularized by authors Stuart Taylor Jr. and Richard Sander that suggests affirmative action programs don’t always benefit minorities.
Although Roberts had mentioned the theory in a different case in 2013, Scalia’s language was blunt.
“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well,” he said.
“One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas,” he said.
This term was slated to be every bit as blockbuster as last term. The court is considering a major challenge to public sector unions, a race-conscious admissions plan at the University of Texas, a big abortion case, voting rights, the contraceptive mandate and a challenge to Obama’s immigration actions.
Although in some of the cases Scalia probably indicated to his colleagues in conference which way he was going to vote, those preliminary votes aren’t binding and are now void.
“The entire tenure of this term has now changed,” said Stephen Vladeck, a CNN contributor and a law professor at American University Washington College Law. “The court can try to go ahead, but on cases where they are split 4-4, their only options are to leave the lower court decision intact or to hold the case over until Justice Scalia’s replacement is confirmed.”
If the Supreme Court is equally divided in a case, ruling 4-4, it means the lower court opinion stands and there is no precedent set by the high court.