Multiple news sites are reporting that conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died today at the age of 79 at a ranch in West Texas. I’ll update this post as details come in. He was reportedly on a quail hunting trip in Marfa. According to the San Antonio Express News, Scalia died at Cibolo Creek Ranch, located between Marfa and Presidio. Scalia’s 29-year tenure was the fifteenth longest in the history of the Court. He was probably the most prominent advocate of originalism, a theory of constitutional interpretation holding that the meaning of the Constitution was fixed and unchanging at the time of its original enactment, unless formally amended.
It is of course impossible not to note the implications for American jurisprudence when a Supreme Court justice dies. If Scalia’s replacement is selected by a Democratic president, it could tip the balance on a Court often split 5-4 on numerous issues. The GOP-controlled Congress will almost certainly refuse to approve a justice selected by President Barack Obama in his lame duck year. Republican activists are already demanding that the Senate block any nominee, regardless of qualification. Jason Noble of the Des Moines Register reports that Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley says he is making no prognostication on the timing or outcome of a nomination.
Ted Cruz minced no words: “Justice Scalia was an American hero. We owe it to him, & the Nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next President names his replacement.” And here’s the communications director for Utah Sen. Mike Lee, a member of the judiciary committee: “What is less than zero? The chances of Obama successfully appointing a Supreme Court Justice to replace Scalia?”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement, “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.”
Minority Leader Harry Reid countered, “The President can and should send the Senate a nominee right away.” He took to Twitter to add, “Would be unprecedented in recent history for SCOTUS to go year with vacancy. And shameful abdication of our constitutional responsibility.”
One precedent is that Anthony Kennedy was appointed by Ronald Reagan and confirmed by a Democratic Senate in 1988, an election year. In the country’s history, seventeen justices have been confirmed by the Senate during a presidential election year (and Clarence Thomas was confirmed by a Democratic Senate in late 1991). But this GOP Senate is not going to do that. The Court will carry on one justice short for at least a year. The Court can hear cases with eight justices sitting. Any split 4-4 decision lets the lower court ruling stand and establishes no precedent.
This will inevitably be an outsized issue in this year’s presidential campaign. The stakes of the 2016 campaign just went up dramatically.
This could impact U.S. Senate campaigns as well, Nate Cohn notes: “There are a lot of GOP-held Senate seats in tilt-blue, socially moderate-to-liberal states up this November.”
Ezra Klein of Vox frets that a GOP-controlled Senate could continue to block a nomination indefinitely if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is elected president.
Good illustration of the kind of impact that the next justice will have:
In past decade, there were ~114 cases that went 5-4 on ideological grounds. The conservative wing won 61% of them. pic.twitter.com/xyzLY4JeIX
— Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) February 13, 2016
Here’s a partial obit from the New York Times.
PS FROM MAX: The Clean Power case and affirmative action — issues in which the conservative bloc was spoiling to make big changes — are now in doubt. What’s not in doubt is that President Obama won’t fill this seat; the next president will.
PPS FROM RAMSEY: Sarah Kliff of Vox points out that Scalia’s death comes a month before the Court’s biggest abortion case in years.
Here’s a statement from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott:
Via Michael Beschloss, here’s a 1986 photo of Scalia being sworn in: