Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a tart-tongued champion of conservative interpretation of the Constitution, has died at a West Texas ranch resort, government officials said Saturday. Scalia, the longest-serving justice on the court and its first Italian-American member, was 79.
President Barack Obama, on a trip to California, praised Scalia as “a larger than life presence on the bench” and a deeply influential “brilliant legal mind” with an “incisive wit.”
And Obama flatly rejected Republican demands that he leave the job of replacing the late justice to whomever wins the November elections.
“I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time,” he said, pressing the Senate to “fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote.”
Scalia’s death had instantly triggered a pitched political battle in Washington, with Democrats urging President Obama to nominate a new justice rather than leave a vacancy for the next occupant of the White House. But top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and several of the party’s presidential candidates, immediately called for leaving the decision to Obama’s successor.
An SUV and hearse from Alpine Memorial Funeral Home arrive at Cibolo Creek Ranch in Shafter, Texas, on Feb. 13, 2016, to pick up the body of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. (Photo: San Antonio Express-News via ZUMA Wire)
Obama learned of Scalia’s passing while on a trip to California, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a brief statement that offered no clues as to the president’s plans. “The president and first lady extend their deepest condolences to Justice Scalia’s family,” Schultz said. Obama was expected to say more later.
A knowledgeable source with close ties to the White House, speaking on condition of anonymity, shared a short list of potential Obama nominees.
The list included Sri Srinivasan, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the District of Columbia circuit; Merrick Garland, chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit; Attorney General Loretta Lynch; Neal Katyal, a Georgetown law professor who spent one year as Obama’s acting solicitor general; Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson; Solicitor General Don Verrilli, beloved in the White House for his high-profile successes in defending Obamacare before the court; and former Attorney General Eric Holder.
One long-shot contender could be Charles Wilson, U.S. circuit judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Florida.
But any Obama nominee has only a “1 out of 1,000 chance of getting confirmed” in the face of Republican opposition, the source said. Still, the president could make things difficult for the GOP by nominating a woman or minority to the Supreme Court, the source said.
Obama has told friends that he views nominating two women to the court as a key part of his legacy. The president could now try to name a third, after Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
His death meant that his votes on a series of high-stakes and controversial cases will be invalidated. The surviving eight justices will have to renegotiate their decisions on issues from whether universities can continue to use affirmative action to whether unions can collect fees from nonmembers to survive.
“On behalf of the court and retired justices, I am saddened to report that our colleague Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement.
“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.”
In the Senate and on the campaign trail, Scalia’s passing drew careful tributes from Democrats, who acknowledged his intellect and commitment to his principles, while Republicans mourned a loss for the conservative movement.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a former Supreme Court clerk now seeking the GOP’s presidential nomination, called Scalia “one of the greatest justices in history” and insisted that Obama leave the job of filling the vacancy to the winner of the November elections.
“We owe it to him, & the Nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next President names his replacement,” Cruz, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of Cruz’s rivals, agreed, saying, “The next president must nominate a justice who will continue Justice Scalia’s unwavering belief in the founding principles that we hold dear.”
McConnell also agreed, saying: “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.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced those demands.
“The Republicans in the Senate and on the campaign trail who are calling for Justice Scalia’s seat to remain vacant dishonor our Constitution,” she said in a statement. “The Senate has a constitutional responsibility here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons.”
And Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Obama “can and should send the Senate a nominee right away.”
In a statement, Reid said that “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,” the Nevada Democrat said.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, his party’s senior member on the judiciary committee, also sharply disagreed.
“The Supreme Court of the United States is too important to our democracy for it to be understaffed for partisan reasons,” Leahy said in a statement. “It is only February. 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.”
Democrats quickly pointed out that President Ronald Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court in late 1987 and the Senate confirmed him in February 1988 — Reagan’s final year in office.
The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, did not weigh in on the timing of a nomination. “While our opinions on the law and jurisprudence were frequently at odds, he was steadfast and true to his beliefs during his tenure,” Durbin said in a statement.
Donald Trump, another Republican presidential hopeful, tweeted that the “totally unexpected loss” was a “massive setback for the Conservative movement and our country.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, another Republican White House contender, mourned Scalia’s passing but did not weigh in on the timing of a nomination.
“Justice Scalia was a brilliant defender of the rule of law — his logic and wit were unparalleled, and his decisions were models of clarity and good sense,” Bush said in a statement. “I often said he was my favorite justice, because he took the Constitution, and the responsibility of judges to interpret it correctly, with the utmost seriousness. Now it is up to all of us to fight for the principles Justice Scalia espoused and carry forth his legacy.”
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said his thoughts and prayers were with Scalia’s family and colleagues on the court.
“While I differed with Justice Scalia’s views and jurisprudence, he was a brilliant, colorful, and outspoken member of the Supreme Court,” Sanders said in a statement.
The news was first reported by mysanantonio.com, which cited federal officials.
(Cover tile photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)