Associate Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead of apparent natural causes Saturday on a luxury resort in West Texas, federal officials said.
Scalia, 79, was a guest at the Cibolo Creek Ranch, a resort in the Big Bend region south of Marfa.
Scalia arrived at the ranch on Friday and attended a private party with about 40 people, reported the San Antonio Express-News. When he did not appear for breakfast, a staff member from the ranch went to his room and found his body.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement, calling Scalia – appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 – a man of God, a patriot and an “unwavering defender of the written Constitution.”
“He was the solid rock who turned away so many attempts to depart from and distort the Constitution,” Abbott said. “We mourn his passing, and 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. Cecilia and I extend our deepest condolences to his family, and we will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”
Ted Cruz was one of the first presidential candidates to comment on Scalia’s passing.
“Today our nation mourns the loss of one of the greatest Justices in history – Justice Antonin Scalia. A champion of our liberties and a stalwart defender of the Constitution, he will go down as one of the few Justices who single-handedly changed the course of legal history.
“As liberals and conservatives alike would agree, through his powerful and persuasive opinions, Justice Scalia fundamentally changed how courts interpret the Constitution and statutes, returning the focus to the original meaning of the text after decades of judicial activism.”
Donald Trump called Scalia’s death a “massive setback” for conservatives and the nation in a tweet.
The sudden vacancy on the Supreme Court raises the stakes for the 2016 presidential election, making it a contest over who will control both the White House and the Court.
The 5-4 conservative majority held during Scalia’s tenure would convert to a liberal majority if a Democrat wins in November.
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have vowed to nominate only justices who would overturn the Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
“I do have a litmus test. I have a bunch of litmus tests,” Clinton said before the New Hampshire primary. “The next president could get as many as three appointments. You know one of the many reasons why we can’t turn the White House over to the Republicans again is because of the Supreme Court.”
With an eye toward filling the Scalia vacancy, Ted Cruz 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.”
Marco Rubio echoed Cruz in a released statement: “The next president must nominate a justice who will continue Justice Scalia’s unwavering belief in the founding principles that we hold dear.”
With Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley having final say as to whether any vote on the Senate floor takes place, it appears unlikely President Obama will be given the opportunity to present a nominee for approval.
Indeed, both senators issued statements Saturday to that effect.
“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,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky said in a statement.
“The fact of the matter is that it’s been standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during a presidential election year,” said Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Given the huge divide in the country, and the fact that this president, above all others, has made no bones about his goal to use the courts to circumvent Congress and push through his own agenda, it only makes sense that we defer to the American people who will elect a new president to select the next Supreme Court Justice.”
Scalia was considered a maverick during his 29 years on the Court for his championing of “originalism” in which the Constitution was interpreted based on what it originally meant to the Founding Fathers who ratified it. He had no patience with activist judges who created “rights” not listed in the Constitution – such as the “right” to abortion – or those who called the Constitution a “living document” to be adapted to changing cultural values.
Discussing the notion of a “living Constitution,” Scalia said, “What’s wrong with it is, it’s wonderful imagery and it puts me on the defensive as defending presumably a dead Constitution. It is an enduring Constitution that I want to defend. These are people that don’t understand what my interpretive philosophy is. I’m not saying no progress. I’m saying we should progress democratically.”
Scalia was called by his critics a “polarizing” figure for his views.
On abortion:Scalia believed there is no constitutional right to abortion. If people desire legalized abortion, a law should be passed to accomplish it. In his dissenting opinion of the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Carey, he wrote: “The States may, if they wish, permit abortion on demand, but the Constitution does not require them to do so. The permissibility of abortion, and the limitations upon it, are to be resolved like most important questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting.”
Scalia repeatedly attempted to convince his colleagues to strike down Roe v. Wade, but was not successful.
On religion: Scalia believed the idea that the U.S. government should be neutral about religion is not supported by the Constitution and is not rooted in American history. In January, he said in a speech in Louisiana that if people want strict prohibition against government endorsement of religion, they should vote on it instead of courts deciding.
“Don’t cram it down the throats of an American people that has always honored God on the pretext that the Constitution requires it,” he said.
Scalia believed government support for religion is not only justified by the Constitution, it was the norm for hundreds of years and it helped the United States become a free and prosperous nation.
On affirmative action: In December, Scalia raised eyebrows with a comment he made during the court’s hearing of an affirmative action case, in which he seemed to suggest some African-Americans belong in lesser colleges.
“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less – a slower-track school where they do well,” Scalia said, according to the transcript. “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas.”
Scalia continued, “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them. I’m just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer. And maybe some – you know, when you take more, the number of blacks, really competent blacks, admitted to lesser schools, turns out to be less.”
President Obama was on the TPC Stadium Course golf course in La Quinta, California, when he received news of Scalia’s death. The White House issued the following statement:
“This afternoon the president was informed of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia,” Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said. “The President and First Lady extend their deepest condolences to Justice Scalia’s family.”
Schultz told reporters the president would have additional reaction later in the day.
Other political figures released statements of condolence.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts: “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.”
Former President George W. Bush: “Laura and I mourn the death of a brilliant jurist and important American, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He was a towering figure and important judge on our Nation’s highest court. He brought intellect, good judgment, and wit to the bench, and he will be missed by his colleagues and our country.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid: “There is no doubt Justice Antonin Scalia was a brilliant man. We had our differences and I disagreed with many of his opinions, but he was a dedicated jurist and public servant. I offer my condolences to his family.
“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.”
Senator Bernie Sanders: “While I differed with Justice Scalia’s views and jurisprudence, he was a brilliant, colorful and outspoken member of the Supreme Court. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and his colleagues on the court who mourn his passing.”
Donald Trump: “Justice Scalia was a remarkable person and a brilliant Supreme Court Justice, one of the best of all time. His career was defined by his reverence for the Constitution and his legacy of protecting Americans’ most cherished freedoms. He was a Justice who did not believe in legislating from the bench and he is a person whom I held in the highest regard and will always greatly respect his intelligence and conviction to uphold the Constitution of our country. My thoughts and prayers are with his family during this time.”