Justice Antonin Scalia, whose transformative legal theories, vivid writing and outsize personality made him a leader of a conservative intellectual renaissance in his three decades on the Supreme Court, was found dead on Saturday at a resort in West Texas, according to a statement from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. He was 79.
“He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues,” Chief Justice Roberts said. “His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he so loyally served.”
The cause of death was not immediately released.
Justice Scalia began his service on the court as an outsider known for caustic dissents that alienated even potential allies. But his theories, initially viewed as idiosyncratic, gradually took hold, and not only on the right and not only in the courts.
He was, Judge Richard A. Posner wrote in The New Republic in 2011, “the most influential justice of the last quarter century.” Justice Scalia was a champion of originalism, the theory of constitutional interpretation that seeks to apply the understanding of those who drafted and ratified the Constitution. In Justice Scalia’s hands, originalism generally led to outcomes that pleased political conservatives, but not always. His approach was helpful to criminal defendants in cases involving sentencing and the cross-examination of witnesses.
With the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens in 2010, Justice Scalia became the longest serving member of the current court. By then, Justice Scalia was routinely writing for the majority in the major cases, including ones on the First Amendment, class actions and arbitration.
He was an exceptional stylist who labored over his opinions and took pleasure in finding precisely the right word or phrase. In dissent, he took no prisoners. The author of a majority opinion could be confident that a Scalia dissent would not overlook any shortcomings.
Justice Scalia wrote for a broader audience than most of his colleagues. His opinions were read by lawyers and civilians for pleasure and instruction.
Justice Scalia’s sometimes withering questioning helped transform what had been a sleepy bench when he arrived into one that Chief Justice Roberts has said has become too active, with the justices interrupting the lawyers and each other.
The current occupant of the Oval Office can be expected to appoint a replacement whose views will more align with his own. Once his nominee is chosen, the US Senate will hold confirmation hearings and then put the nominee to a vote. A majority of 51 wins, which may be difficult for Obama in a Senate that currently has 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and two Independents. There is definitely a concern that the Republican-controlled Senate will do their best to put off the confirmation of any less-than-conservative nominee in the hopes that a Republican president will be elected in the fall and the task of nomination will then go to him.
The time for all this action to take place isn't set in stone, and having a Democratic president try to replace a conservative justice in a Republican-led Senate will surely prove difficult. The last person to join the Supreme Court was Justice Elena Kagan, who was nominated by Obama on May 20, 2010 in anticipation of Justice John Paul Stevens' impending retirement on June 29 of that year. She was confirmed by a 63-37 vote of the Senate on Aug. 5, 2010. The last Justice to die on the bench was William Rehnquist on Sept. 2, 2005.