Justice Antonin Scalia's death immediately sparked a heated election-year fight over whether President Barack Obama should try to fill the court vacancy. Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail insisted the choice should fall to the next president.
"The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president."
His position was echoed by a pair of senators seeking the GOP presidential nomination: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
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The White House issued a statement offering condolences to Scalia's family but did not immediately provide any hint about whether Obama planned to nominate a replacement.
His decision would likely determine the tenor of much of his final year in office — and ricochet onto the campaign trail. Obama, who already has little goodwill on the Hill, would certainly face stiff opposition from Republicans who want the chance to further tip the court to the right.
Senate Democrats made it clear they expect Obama to nominate a new justice and that they would work vigorously to keep Republicans from dragging out the confirmation process. They offered early counterarguments to Republican statements that the decision should rest with the next president.
"It would be unprecedented in recent history for the Supreme Court to go a year with a vacant seat," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate's most essential constitutional responsibilities."
Democrats pointed out that Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in an election year — 1988 — the final year of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Kennedy had been nominated in November 1987 after the Senate rejected Robert Bork and Judge Douglas Ginsburg bowed out.
Democrats also argued that waiting for the next president in January 2017 would leave the court without a ninth justice for more than the remainder of Obama's term as Senate confirmation on average takes just over two months.
"With so many critical issues before the Supreme Court, I am hopeful that the president can move as quickly as possible to fill this vacancy with the advice and consent of the Senate," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "The Supreme Court of the United States is too important to our democracy for it to be understaffed for partisan reasons."
Before Scalia's death, the court was ideologically split with many 5-4 decisions. The remaining justices are generally divided among four conservative votes and four liberal votes — leaving the next nominee crucial to the court's direction, potentially for years to come.
The current session has major cases still undecided. Cases that already have been argued by the court but not decided involve Obama's executive orders easing immigration rules for many people in the country illegally, a Texas case that could increase Hispanics' voting strength, another Texas case challenging affirmative action rules at the University of Texas, a California case challenging employee unions' practice of requiring public school teachers to pay dues for union activities and yet another Texas case challenging a law that could force many clinics offering abortion services to close.
When there is a 4-4 tie, now a distinct possibility this spring, the result is basically to affirm the lower court decision before the case came to the Supreme Court. On a major issue, the high court would be likely to rehear the case once it had its full membership.
There are no time restrictions on appointing a new justice. If the Senate confirms a nominee, he or she could begin sitting to hear cases for the remainder of the current term.