Scalia's Dead, But It's Politics as Usual

Scalia's body was barely cold before arguing about his successor got started

On Feb. 13, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead, and Repub­licans immediately used his death as an opportunity to attack the White House.

New Jersey-born Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1986 by Pres. Ronald Reagan, replacing William Rehnquist when he was promoted to chief justice. According to reports, Scalia fell ill on Feb. 12 after spending a day quail hunting at Cibolo Creek Ranch in West Texas. He was 79 and, contrary to groundless far-right conspiracy theories spreading online about assassinations, he died in his sleep of natural causes. Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed Scalia's demise in a statement: "His passing is a great loss to the court and the country he so loyally served."

Scalia's death could potentially lead to an ideological shift on the Supreme Court. As he was one of its most conservative – many would say obstructionist – justices, it would be near impossible for the Obama administration to not nominate a markedly more progressive justice. So, barely was the news out than Sen­ate Majority Leader Mitch McCon­nell claimed that it had been "standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during a presidential election year." (McConnell ignores the fact that Supreme Court seats only come up due to either the death or retirement of a justice, and that the Senate has in fact approved five nominees in that time with less than a year left in the president's term: Frank Murphy in 1940, William J. Brennan in 1956, Rehnquist in 1971, Lewis Powell in 1972, and incumbent Justice Anthony Kennedy in 1988.)

McConnell continued, "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." Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, echoed McConnell's sentiment, saying that the selection should be left until 2017.

However, the leading Democrat on Grass­ley's committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Ver­mont, rejected the Republican plan to leave an empty seat on the nation's highest bench for the remaining 11 months of the Obama administration, and however long after that it takes his successor to pick a replacement, and have their nomination approved by the new Senate. "It is only February," Leahy wrote with exasperation. "The president and the Senate should get to work without delay to nominate, consider, and confirm the next justice to serve on the Supreme Court."

With the Obama administration unlikely to let the bench go understaffed for a year, several names are already being touted as Sca­lia's replacement. The list includes: Attorney General Loretta Lynch; First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Barron; and D.C. Cir­cuit Court of Appeals Judge Sri Srinivasan, the latter seen as a front-runner.

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Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court

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