Scalia’s death plunges court, national politics into turmoil

WASHINGTON – Justice Antonin Scalia, the longest-serving member of the current Supreme Court and an intellectual leader of the conservative legal movement, died Saturday, and his death set off an immediate political battle about the future of the court and its national role.

Scalia, 79, was found dead at a hunting resort in Texas after he did not appear for breakfast, law enforcement officials said. A cause of death was not immediately reported.

President Obama, who disagreed with Scalia’s jurisprudence, nevertheless praised him as “a larger-than-life presence on the bench” and a “brilliant legal mind [who] influenced a generation of judges, lawyers and students, and profoundly shaped the legal landscape.”

Obama said he would nominate a successor, even though the Senate’s Republican leadership and its presidential candidates said an election-year confirmation was out of the question.

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Scalia’s sudden death casts a cloud of uncertainty over a Supreme Court term filled with some of the most controversial issues facing the nation: abortion, affirmative action, the rights of religious objectors to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and the president’s powers on immigration and deportation.

An eight-member court could split on all of those issues.

It would seem to assure that the Supreme Court, often far down the list of voters’ concern when choosing a president, would become a prominent issue in the campaign.

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, soon to be 83, is the oldest member of the court, while Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is the same age as Scalia.

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The jurist’s death leaves the court with three consistent conservatives – Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. – and Kennedy, like Scalia a Ronald Reagan appointee but one who often sides with the court’s liberals on social issues, such as same-sex marriage.

The court has four consistent liberals: Ginsburg plus Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Despite their sharp ideological differences, the justices nevertheless often proclaim their personal affinity for one another, and it seemed especially true regarding Scalia.

Ginsburg, with whom he served as an appeals court judge, was his closest friend on the court, and he and Kagan bonded when he took her on hunting trips.

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The Supreme Court provided no details of Scalia’s death, only a statement from Roberts after reports of his death from Texas news media.

“On behalf of the court and retired justices, I am saddened to report that our colleague Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away,” Roberts said in the statement. “He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues. 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.”

Scalia died at Cibolo Creek Ranch, a resort in the Big Bend area of Texas near the town of Shafter, according to a person in law enforcement.

That person said Scalia did not appear for breakfast when the rest of the party did. People in the group thought he might be sleeping in, but eventually the host of the group became concerned and found him dead, the source said.

Although the fate of Scalia’s successor seems likely to consume political Washington, the outcome of the many controversies will be complicated by an eight-member court. If the court ties in deciding a case, the decision of the appeals court remains in place, without setting a nationwide precedent.

For instance, the court already was working with one less justice in a case involving the use of race in an admissions case at the University of Texas.

Kagan sat out the case, presumably because she worked on the issue when she was Obama’s solicitor general. That means only seven justices would decide whether the appeals court was correct to uphold the program.

The court is scheduled to hear in April arguments about Obama’s plan to shield more than 4 million illegal immigrants from deportation.

The executive action was put on hold by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. A split court would uphold that decision and keep Obama from implementing it before he leaves office next January.

In the case of faith-based hospitals, colleges and charities that object to providing employees with contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act, the court is trying to sort out competing court decisions.

Most appeals courts that have decided the controversy found in favor of the Obama administration. But one did not. Presumably, a split court would mean the law is interpreted differently depending on the region of the country.

Although Scalia was a polarizing figure, reaction to his death brought accolades even from those who disagreed vehemently with his view of the law.

“His indomitable conviction and his fierce intelligence left a lasting imprint – not just on the way the Supreme Court resolves cases, but on the legal landscape that he helped to transform.,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a statement. “A lion of American law has left the stage, and it is up to all of us – every American – to keep our national constitutional dialogue as lively and as learned as he left it.”

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The Washington Post’s Paul Kane contributed to this report.