Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died from natural causes while visiting friends in West Texas on Saturday morning. He was 79.
News of the conservative justice’s death was first reported by the San Antonio Express and later confirmed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Shortly after, Chief Justice John Roberts released a statement saying he was “saddened to report” the news. Roberts wrote of Scalia, who served 29 years on the nation’s highest court:
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’s death creates a vacancy at the Supreme Court during a presidential election year.
And with 11 months left in office, President Barack Obama will need to decide how to handle a delicate situation with a Republican-controlled Senate that must confirm a new justice. Pressure already had been mounting on Senate Republicans to halt all of the White House’s judicial nominees.
It has been more than 80 years since a Supreme Court justice was confirmed by the Senate during an election year.
Traditionally, the Senate follows the unofficial Thurmond-Leahy rule, halting all judicial nominees during the final six months of an outgoing president’s term.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., released a statement calling for Scalia’s seat to remain open.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of the next Supreme Court justice,” McConnell wrote. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
President Reagan nominated Scalia in 1986, and his confirmation made him the first Italian-American to ever serve on the high court. The Senate unanimously confirmed his appointment, 98-0.
Only two senators abstained from voting: Republicans Jake Garn of Utah and Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the former presidential candidate.
Edwin Meese III, who was U.S. attorney general at the time and now is The Heritage Foundation’s Ronald Reagan distinguished fellow emeritus, provided this statement to The Daily Signal:
I am greatly saddened by the passing of Antonin Scalia, who was a great friend and one of the most outstanding justices on the Supreme Court. He was a historic jurist, an exceptional legal scholar, and a stalwart defender of the Constitution as it was given to the nation by our Founders. He fulfilled President Reagan’s greatest expectations by his commitment to the rule of law and his personal integrity. My deepest sympathy to his wife, Maureen, and to the rest of his wonderful family.
An undergraduate of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Scalia graduated from Harvard Law School in 1960 before serving later in both the Nixon and Ford administrations.
Reagan nominated Scalia in 1982 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where he served from Aug. 17, 1982, until his elevation to the Supreme Court on Sept. 26, 1986.
A staunch and sharp-witted conservative, Scalia, a devout Catholic, first made originalism vogue on the modern court, arguing that justices ought to interpret the Constitution according to its original meaning.
Before coming to the court, he served as one of the original faculty advisers to the prominent conservative judicial group the Federalist Society.
A celebrated justice among conservatives and grudgingly admired by some liberals, Scalia was an open opponent of any encroachment on the separation of powers, federalism, and the right to life.
His written opinions, whether for the majority or dissenting, were often equally colorful and biting.
For example, Scalia described the jurisprudence of the King v. Burwell decision that upheld the Affordable Care Act as “pure applesauce” and quipped that the law should be renamed “SCOTUScare.”