US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia – one of most conservative members of the high court – has died.
Justice Scalia’s death could shift the balance of power on the US high court, allowing President Barack Obama to add a fifth liberal justice to the bench.
The court’s conservative 5-4 majority has recently stalled major efforts by the Obama administration on climate change and immigration.
Justice Scalia, 79, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
“He was a towering figure and important judge on our nation’s highest court,” former President George W Bush said in a statement. “He brought intellect, good judgment, and wit to the bench, and he will be missed by his colleagues and our country.”
He died in his sleep early on Saturday while in West Texas for hunting trip, the US Marshalls Service said.
The White House offered its condolences to the Scalia family and said the president would issue a full statement later on Saturday.
“He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement. “His passing is a great loss to the court and the country he so loyally served.”
Politics turned on its head: Anthony Zurcher, BBC News North America reporter
The death of Antonin Scalia has turned the US presidential race, and Washington politics, on its head.
The ability of a president to shape the Supreme Court for years if not decades has been an important consideration for many voters in US presidential campaigns – but it is usually an abstract concern. With the passing of conservative firebrand Scalia, that is no longer the case.
Republicans in the US Senate will do everything they can to prevent Barack Obama, who has less than 11 months left in his presidency, from naming a successor to a court that had been sharply divided between liberals and conservatives. If they succeed, then the historic nature of the current presidential campaign could not be clearer.
A Democratic victory in November means a court with a decidedly more liberal bent. If Republicans prevail they preserve their slender conservative majority on a court that regularly issues landmark decisions on issues like gay rights, immigration law, healthcare reform, campaign finance reform and civil liberties.
Even if Mr Obama gets a nominee confirmed, the power his successor will hold is now crystal clear. Three of the eight remaining justices are over the age of 70.
Born in 1936 in Queens, New York, Justice Scalia was the first Italian American to serve on the high court.
He was one of the most prominent proponents of “originalism” – a conservative legal philosophy that believes the US Constitution has a fixed meaning and does not change with the times.
In 2008, Justice Scalia delivered the opinion in District of Columbia v Heller, a landmark case that affirmed an individual’s right to possess a handgun.
Throughout his career, the outspoken justice has been a vocal opponent of abortion and gay rights, often writing scathing dissenting opinions.
In the majority, he supported business interests and was a strong advocate for the death penalty, but he often parted with his conservative colleagues on issues of free speech.
He was known for his sense of humour and colourful language, calling efforts to defend President Obama’s healthcare reform law “jiggery-pokery” and “pure applesauce”.
His biting legal opinions and colourful persona made him a celebrity in conservative legal circles and, to a lesser extent, among the general public.
Justice Scalia was the subject of a one-act play and the focus of an opera along with his friend and colleague liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The appointment of Justice Scalia’s successor is certain to become a major issue in the presidential race.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said on Saturday that the new justice should be selected after the presidential election.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” he said.
Senate Democrats sharply disagreed with Senator McConnell.
“Would be unprecedented in recent history for [the Supreme Court] to go year with vacancy,” Senator Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the chamber, tweeted. “And shameful abdication of our constitutional responsibility,”
The Supreme Court will continue to hear cases during the current term, with or without a replacement, including a major case involving abortion rights.
US Supreme Court justices are appointed to life terms by the president with the approval of the US Senate.
The length of their terms along with their influence on US politics makes their selection and confirmation hotly debated.
Appointed by Democratic presidents, associate justices Mrs Ginsburg, 82, Sonia Sotomayor, 61, Stephen Breyer, 77, and Elena Kagan, 55, make up the court’s liberal wing.
Appointed by Republican presidents, Chief Justice John Roberts, 61, along with justices Clarence Thomas, 67, Anthony Kennedy, 79, and Samuel Alito, 65, are the court’s conservative bloc.
source : BBC News