(AP) – Antonin Scalia, the influential conservative and most provocative member of the Supreme Court, has died, leaving the high court without its conservative majority and setting up an ideological confrontation over his successor in the maelstrom of a presidential election year. Scalia was 79.
The U.S. Marshals Service in Washington confirmed Scalia’s death at a private residence in the Big Bend area of West Texas. Spokeswoman Donna Sellers said Scalia had gone to his room the previous evening and was found dead Saturday morning after he did not appear for breakfast.
Scalia was part of a 5-4 conservative majority – with one of the five, Anthony Kennedy, sometimes voting with liberals on the court. Scalia’s death leaves President Barack weighing when to nominate a successor, a decision that immediately sparked a political struggle drawing in Congress and the presidential candidates.
The immediate impact of his death for the current term means that the justices will now be divided 4-4 in many of those cases. If there is a tie vote, then the lower court opinion remains in place. Cases where the current court was expected to split 5-4 include disputes over abortion, affirmative action and immigration policy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, said the nomination should fall to the next president.
Democrats were outraged at that idea, with Sen. Harry Reid, the chamber’s top Democrat, saying it would be “unprecedented in recent history” for the court to have a vacancy for a year.
Leaders in both parties were likely to use the high court vacancy to implore voters to nominate candidates with the best chance of winning in the November general election.