Joan Biskupic and Lawrence Hurley
Washington: Conservative US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has died, setting up a major political showdown between President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled Senate over who will replace him just months before a presidential election.
“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 on Saturday, calling Scalia, 79, an “extraordinary individual and jurist.”
Appointed to the top US court in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, Scalia was known for his strident conservative views and theatrical flair in the courtroom.
Obama, who is travelling in California, extended his condolences, and the White House said he would have more to say about Scalia’s death later on Saturday.
His death comes as the court is set to hear its first major abortion case in nearly 10 years, and ahead of key cases on voting rights, affirmative action and immigration.
Battle to come
The US president will face a stiff battle to win confirmation of a nominee to replace the dead jurist, with Republicans likely to delay in the hope that one of their own wins the November election.
Obama could tilt the balance of the nation’s highest court, which now consists of four conservatives and four liberals, if he is successful in pushing his nominate through the Senate confirmation process. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy sometimes joins with the liberals on high-profile issues, including gay rights and the death penalty.
President Barack Obama said on Saturday he plans to fulfil his constitutional responsibility to nominate a Supreme Court justice to fill the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia.
Obama paid tribute to Scalia’s legacy on the bench in brief remarks to reporters, but did not give any indication about who he would nominate to replace him, saying the nomination would come in due time.
“Justice Scalia was an American hero. We owe it to him, and the nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next president names his replacement,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate, said on Twitter.
The court is set to decide its first major abortion case in nearly 10 years as well as key cases on voting rights, affirmative action and immigration.
Scalia began his service on the court as an outsider known for caustic dissents that alienated even potential allies. But his theories, initially viewed as idiosyncratic, gradually took hold, and not only on the right and not only in the courts.
He was, Judge Richard A. Posner wrote in The New Republic in 2011, “the most influential justice of the last quarter century”.
Scalia was a champion of originalism, the theory of constitutional interpretation that seeks to apply the understanding of those who drafted and ratified the Constitution.
In Scalia’s hands, originalism generally led to outcomes that pleased political conservatives, but not always: His approach was helpful to criminal defendants in cases involving sentencing and the cross-examination of witnesses.
Scalia’s replacement would be Obama’s third appointment to the nine-justice court.
Obama’s first two appointments to the court, liberals Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010, both experienced relatively smooth confirmation hearings in the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats. Sotomayor was approved by a 68-31 vote and Kagan by 63-37.
The battle over Scalia’s replacement will be different, with Republicans now in charge of the Senate and keen to exert their influence over the process. Obama is likely to be forced into picking a moderate with little or no history of advocating for liberal causes.
Other factors the White House is likely to consider is whether to nominate a woman or a member of a minority group, or someone who fits into both categories.
Among those mentioned within legal circles as potential nominees are Sri Srinivasan, an Indian-American judge who has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since May 2013, and Jacqueline Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American who has been a judge on the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals since May 2012.
Paul Watford, a black judge on the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals who was appointed in May 2012, and Jane Kelly, a white woman and former public defender who has served on the St. Louis, Missouri-based 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals since April 2013, also have been touted as possible nominees.
Reuters, New York Times