Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has died, setting up a major political showdown between President Obama and the Republican-controlled Senate over who will replace him and when that appointment should take place.
"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."
Obama said Saturday night he would seek to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant, charging into a heated and likely prolonged election-year fight with Republicans in Congress. He said a nomination was "bigger than any one party."
With a half-dozen or more major cases before the court, Obama said he pIanned "to fulfill my constitutional responsibility to nominate a successor in due time."
The Senate should have "plenty of time ... to give that person a fair hearing and timely vote," he said.
The court has already heard — but not decided — big cases involving immigration, abortion, affirmative action and public employee unions. With many cases recently decided by 5-4 margins, the vacancy could have major repercussions, both legally and in the presidential race.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said in a statement that "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."
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "Unless he [Obama] can find a consensus choice, the next president will pick the replacement for Justice Scalia."
But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, countered 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," Reid said in a statement.
Democrats pointed out that Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in an election year — 1988 — the final year of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Kennedy had been nominated in November 1987 after the Senate rejected Robert Bork and Judge Douglas Ginsburg bowed out.
Democrats also argued that waiting for the next president in January 2017 would leave the court without a ninth justice for more than the remainder of Obama's term as Senate confirmation on average takes just over two months.
Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "The Supreme Court of the United States is too important to our democracy for it to be understaffed for partisan reasons."
The impact on the campaign trail was immediate. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a presidential candidate, issued a statement urging Obama to hold off nominating even as news of Scalia unexpected death spread. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, said, "The Senate has a constitutional responsibility here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons."
Before Scalia's death, the court was ideologically split with many 5-4 decisions. The remaining justices are generally divided among four conservative votes and four liberal votes — leaving the next nominee crucial to the court's direction, potentially for years to come.
An appointment by Obama could tilt the balance of the nation's highest court, which now consists of four conservatives and four liberals. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy sometimes joins with the liberals on high-profile issues, including gay rights and the death penalty.
Leaders in both parties are likely to use the vacancy to implore voters to nominate presidential candidates with the best chance of winning in November's general election.
Scalia's death was first reported by the San Antonio News-Express, who said he had apparently died of natural causes while visiting a luxury resort in West Texas.
Appointed to the top U.S. court in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, Scalia was known for his strident conservative views and theatrical flair in the courtroom.