Justice Antonin Scalia, the U.S. Supreme Court’s most fiery conservative voice, has died while on a hunting trip in Texas, immediately changing the balance of nation’s highest court and thrusting its future directly into the center of the presidential campaign
Scalia’s death at age 79 was reported by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and confirmed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
The Supreme Court had been closely divided between four appointees of Democratic presidents, all fairly liberal, and five Republican appointees, all relatively conservative. Scalia’s death will leave the justices evenly split, with the partisan balance to be determined by the next nominee.
Although President Barack Obama could make a nomination, the Republican-controlled Senate is highly likely to defer action until after the November election in hopes that a Republican president would appoint another conservative. Democrats have not had a majority on the Supreme Court since Richard Nixon was president.
That prospect will almost certainly make the court’s future a central issue in the presidential election this fall, with issues such as abortion rights, immigration and affirmative action all hanging in the balance.
In the meantime, his death will also have an immediate and significant influence on the court’s work. Pending this term are a series of cases in which Scalia would be a key participant in forming a conservative majority. Without his vote, the justices could be deadlocked and unable to issue a decision.
Scalia played a historic role during his nearly 30 years on the bench, insisting the Constitution should be interpreted by its original words and meaning and dissenting strongly from liberal decisions on abortion, the death penalty and gay rights.
He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, and he proved to be just the kind of outspoken conservative that many on the right had longed hope for.
“We pray that his successor on the Supreme Court will take his place as a champion for the written Constitution and the Rule of Law,” Abbott said in his statement.