Antonin Scalia died at a West Texas ranch south of Marfa on Saturday. His death ignited a political war. And some suggested he was murdered, really?
Partisan warfare erupted within minutes between leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties about when — even if — a new justice should be nominated. Lists of possible candidates were published and vetted.
Justice Scalia was the longest serving justice on the Supreme Court, having been appointed by President Reagan 30 years ago. He was ranked as the third most conservative, behind Justices Thomas and Alito.
Justice Scalia was known, even revered, for his staunchly conservative rulings, emphasis on the original meaning of the Constitution, and often bitter dissents.
What effect will this rare election year vacancy on the polarized Court have on Americans? From current undecided cases to the very future of the Court itself, the justice’s death has set off a constitutional crisis not seen since Robert Bork’s unsuccessful nomination in 1987.
Effect on the Liberal-Conservative Balance of Power
Several recent ground breaking decisions have been decided by 5-4 splits. As of today, the court is evenly balanced 4-4 or even 5-3 in favor of liberals, depending on Justice Kennedy’s unpredictable vote, so many split decisions with no precedential value may be common.
But two of the liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 82) and Stephen Breyer (age 77) and unpredictable Anthony Kennedy (age 79) are elderly.
When they retire or die, the Court would tilt towards the right if the new president is a Republican. He could set a record by naming four new justices in his first term.
These new justices would guarantee 7-2 decisions that reverse decisions concerning abortions, same sex marriages, the Affordable Care Act, immigration, criminal sentencing, and a host of other lightning rod cases.
A Democratic president could achieve a 5-4 and possible 6-3 tilt to the left, making the Court the most liberal is has been since President Franklin Roosevelt’s appointments during the Great Depression.
The stakes for setting the direction of the highest court of the land have never been higher in our lifetimes.
All this while the justices are supposed to be above party politics.
Justice Scalia, who is reported to have been in excellent or poor health, would have turned 80 next month. A mandatory retirement age — perhaps 75 — needs to be considered to prevent the country from lurching into a political crisis the next time a justice dies.