The nation is reeling from the shock of the announcement of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death on February 13 from apparent natural causes at the Cibolo Creek Ranch, a luxury resort near Marfa Texas which is in the western part of the state. Scalia had arrived at the ranch on Friday where he attended a private party with approximately forty people. When the Justice did not show up for breakfast, a staff member from the ranch went to his room and discovered that the Justice was deceased. Justice Scalia who has been described as the “leading conservative voice on the court”, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and was the longest serving justice of the current bench at the time of his death.
Justice Scalia’s sudden death is anticipated to create a party line battle with Republicans pressuring the Republican-controlled Senate to delay confirming any candidates nominated by President Barack Obama during his last year in office and Democrats making the argument that the court cannot go for close to an entire year with only eight justices. In President Obama’s public remarks about the life and legacy of Justice Scalia, he made the statement that he would fulfill his obligation to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court bench.
The first Italian-American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia was born in Trenton, NJ to a Sicilian born father who immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island and later became a professor of romance languages at Brooklyn College. Scalia’s mother was a first generation Italian-American who was employed as an elementary school teacher until the birth of their only child Antonin. Scalia was raised in a melting pot neighborhood in Queens where he graduated from Xavier High School. Scalia graduated valedictorian and summa cum laude from Georgetown University and received his law degree from Harvard University. While at Harvard, Scalia met Maureen McCarthy, the woman who would become his wife of 48 years with whom he would have nine children and 28 grandchildren.
After a brief tenure in private practice and academia, Scalia first entered public service in 1972 when President Nixon appointed him general counsel for the Office of Telecommunications Policy, where he developed regulations for the cable industry. Scalia was later appointed Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel where he argued and won his first and only case before the U.S. Supreme Court in Alfred Dunhill of London, Inc., V. Republic of Cuba on behalf of the US government. In 1982, Scalia was appointed by President Reagan to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. It was in this role that Scalia made a name for himself as a conservative and received many laudations for his writing ability and his willingness to be critical of the U.S. Supreme Court which led to his nomination and appointment to the Supreme Court in 1986.
During his long tenure on the Supreme Court Justice Scalia has been known for the strong conservative positions which he has taken on many issues such as abortion, federal government over-reach etc. This past June, Justice Scalia once again made history with his powerful dissent on the Same-Sex Marriage ruling (Obergefell v. Hodges) which he described as “a threat to American Democracy.” That same week, Justice Scalia also delivered a scathing dissent of the legislation concerning The Affordable Care Act in King vs. Burwell where he highlighted the ruling as judicial overreach and “interpretive jiggery-pokery,” suggesting that the Affordable Care Act be renamed “SCOTUScare”.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has issued the 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.” The Majority Leader further commented,
Today our country lost an unwavering champion of a timeless document that unites each of us as Americans. Justice Scalia’s fidelity to the Constitution was rivaled only by the love of his family. ..Through the sheer force of his intellect and his legendary wit, this giant of American Jurisprudence almost single-handedly revived an approach to constitutional interpretation that prioritized the text and original meaning of the Constitution.
Scalia’s death, which took place on the same day as the 9th Republican 2016 Presidential Primary Debate, elicited similar responses from the GOP candidates including GOP front runner Donald Trump who described Scalia as “a justice who did not believe in legislating from the bench.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is currently running second in the GOP race, tweeted, “Justice Scalia was an American hero. We owe it to him, & the Nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next President names his replacement.”
On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has also released a statement where he praised Justice Scalia as a “brilliant man” and “dedicated jurist and public servant” but also commented that,
The President can and should send the Senate a nominee right away. 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. Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate’s most essential Constitutional responsibilities.
Reid’s comments clearly underscore the groundswell which will come from the Democrat side of aisle for a speedy process for identifying and nominating a replacement for Justice Scalia. Bear in mind, according to the Congressional Research Service, it typically takes approximately 67 days from the date of nomination to final Senate vote to confirm a Supreme Court Justice. Furthermore, given that three of the remaining eight justices are seventy-seven years of age or older, namely Justice Stephen Breyer (77). Justice Anthony Kennedy (79), and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (82), there is the possibility that a second justice might retire, consequently creating a second opening on the Court. There is, of course, the likelihood that the Obama Administration would endeavour to fill these vacancies while the President is still in office with “left leaning” nominees and create a left leaning court majority.
The impact of Justice Scalia’s sudden death on the current bench is in a word “seismic”. The Supreme Court will be tremendously impacted by the absence of his conservative voice and his consistent adherence to originalism, which is a “principle of interpretation that views the Constitution’s meaning as fixed as of the time of enactment.” There are currently a number of cases facing the Supreme Court where Scalia’s strict adherence to the Constitution will be missed, including a landmark abortion case from Texas titled Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which has been described as “the greatest threat to Roe v. Wade to reach the Supreme Court in a generation” The Court is also facing landmark union, redistricting, and affirmative action cases.
As we begin the process of examining the short and long term impact of the absence of Justice Antonin Scalia on the judicial landscape, we should also remember the man. Apparently, Justice Scalia was known for being a very warm individual. And interestingly enough, the person on the bench with whom he had the closest social relationship was his polar ideological opposite, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Apparently the two New Yorkers and their spouses socialized together frequently and even rang in several New Year’s Eve’s together. Justice Antonin Scalia, dead February 13, 2016, less than one month shy of what would have been his 80th birthday on March 11. Rest in Peace.