With court in liberal-conservative deadlock and major decisions on the 2016 docket, bruising nomination fight looms

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia listens to President Bush speaking during a swearing-in ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, June 7, 2006. (AP/Ron Edmonds, File)
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia listens to President Bush speaking during a swearing-in ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, June 7, 2006. (AP/Ron Edmonds, File)


WASHINGTON (AFP) — The sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a towering conservative icon on the US Supreme Court, has set off an epic election-year battle over his successor that will shape American life far into the future.

Scalia died in his sleep at age 79, leaving what has been a conservative-dominated court evenly divided in a year of blockbuster cases — on abortion, affirmative action, immigration, and President Barack Obama’s healthcare law.

The news sent a shock wave through the race for the White House, as Republican and Democratic candidates absorbed the implications of the surprise, potentially course-altering opening on the court.

“I think last night with the passing of Justice Scalia, we are reminded of how important this election is, how high the stakes are and why we must win,” Senator Marco Rubio, in a bitter fight for the Republican nomination, told Fox News Sunday.

Firing the first shot in the succession battle, Obama said he would exercise his “constitutional responsibilities” and name a successor.

Leading Republicans — including all six conservative White House contenders — threatened to block any nomination Obama puts forth, arguing that it should be left to the next president to fill Scalia’s vacant seat.

Republicans contended that no president in 80 years has nominated a Supreme Court Justice in his final year in office.

But Justice Anthony Kennedy, nominated by Ronald Reagan, was confirmed in 1988, an election year.

Obama called on the Senate to give his nominee a “fair hearing and a timely vote.”

“These are responsibilities that I take seriously as should everyone,” Obama said. “They’re bigger than any one party. They are about our democracy.”

The president nominates Supreme Court candidates, but Senate approval is required for them to take up the lifetime post, which has led to some viciously fought nomination battles.

‘Towering’ legal figure

Obama ordered flags to fly at half-staff across the United States to mark Scalia’s passing, praising him as “one of the towering legal figures of our time.”

Scalia died at a private residence in the Big Bend area of West Texas, according to the US Marshals Service.

“For almost 30 years, Justice Antonin Scalia was a larger than life presence on the bench, a brilliant legal mind with an energetic style,” Obama told reporters in Rancho Mirage, California.

Appointed to the Supreme Court by Reagan in 1986, he championed “originalism,” the legal theory that the Constitution should be interpreted strictly in the light of the intentions of its authors, or changed through the Constitution’s own amendment process.

In this view, the legal validity of the death penalty and the right to bear arms is unquestionable, and courts cannot cancel either for reasons that stray beyond the Constitution itself, such as the belief that they are immoral.

A devout Catholic who had nine children, Scalia derided court decisions expanding access to abortion and same-sex marriage as judicial overreach, since both would have been unfathomable to the writers of the Constitution.

Brilliant, witty and scathing in his opinions, he was known as much for his slashing dissents as his majority opinions.

Scalia “was a bad boy on the bench who certainly never wrote a bad sentence,” his biographer, journalist Joan Biskupic, said Sunday on CNN.

To the surprise of some, the portly, affable Scalia was able to separate his legal opinions from his personal relations, celebrating New Year’s each year with liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and taking the newest justice Elena Kagan skeet shooting.

Court’s future in play

His death’s impact on the court will be immediate even though the succession struggle will take time to play out, court watchers say.

With a 5-4 conservative majority, the court had recently stalled key efforts by the Obama administration on climate change and immigration.

Now, with the court split 4-4, lower court rulings will be upheld in cases that end with a tied decision, thereby blunting the conservatives’ hold.

This term is stacked high with hot button issues, including the first abortion case since 2007 — a review of restrictions imposed by the state of Texas on abortion clinics.

The court also will decide whether Obama has the authority as president to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, as well as a challenge by religious groups to his signature Affordable Care Act.

Another case involves whether race and ethnicity can be used in deciding college admissions.

‘Delay, delay, delay’

Republican leaders immediately took up the cry against an Obama nomination to the court, setting the stage for a bruising election year fight.

“The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” said Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

McConnell’s Democratic counterpart Harry Reid pressed for Obama to send a nominee to the Senate “right away,” stressing that a yearlong vacancy — raising the prospect of 4 to 4 splits on major issues — would be “unprecedented.”

“Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate’s most essential Constitutional responsibilities,” Reid said.

Democratic White House hopeful Hillary Clinton said Republicans calling for a delay “dishonor our Constitution.”

Her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders insisted a “full contingent” was needed on the Supreme Court.

“They’re dealing with enormously important issues,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “Let’s get on with that business.”

On the debate stage in South Carolina Saturday night, all six Republican presidential contenders bowed their heads in silence to honor the late justice — and united to oppose Obama nominating his successor.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump said he fully expects Obama to nominate a justice — and said it was up to Senate Republicans to “delay, delay, delay.”

As reported by The Times of Israel