Photo: File
Photo: File

Antonin Scalia, the sharp wit of the U.S. Supreme Court, dies at 79

West Texas judge says cause of death was heart attack

Antonin Scalia, the extraordinary conservative voice who brought a sharp intellect and an even sharper wit to the U.S. Supreme Court, was found dead at a West Texas resort on Saturday.

The justice, who was 79, is believed to have died in his sleep Friday night or early Saturday at Cibolo Creek Ranch, where he had gone with friends for a hunting trip. Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara said "myocardial infarction," a heart attack, would be listed as the cause of death on Scalia's death certificate, Dallas TV station WFAA reported. The station said Scalia's body had been taken early Sunday to El Paso for embalming. It could not be determined immediately whether an autopsy was performed. Judge Guevara said she did not see Scalia's body but spoke to the justice's doctor and to a U.S. marshal at the ranch who said there was no sign that Scalia had died of anything other than natural causes.

Scalia’s passing set off an election-year mélee over his successor that will likely drag on for months and reverberate on the campaign trail.

President Barack Obama Saturday night called Scalia a “larger than life presence on the bench, a brilliant legal mind with an energetic style, incisive wit and colorful opinions.” But Obama promptly squared off with Republican leaders by announcing that that he intends to send a nominee to the Senate for confirmation “in due time.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio said Obama should let his successor choose the next justice.

“We’re eight months away from an election in November and 10 months away from swearing in a new president of the United States,” U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., told the AJC Saturday night. “The American people are going to the polls to vote in November to pick the next president, and I think the next president ought to be the one to fill that vacancy and not the president who’s going out.”

The Senate minority leader, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, called that notion a “shameful abdication of one of the Senate’s most essential constitutional responsibilities.”

Obama will find Senate Republicans extremely reluctant to confirm his choice to fill Scalia's seat. Doing so could enable the president to extend his legacy for decades. If Republicans stall the nomination until Obama leaves office, more than a year could elapse before a new justice is confirmed.

‘Tremendous impact in every imaginable way’

Leaving Scalia's seat empty could mean that neither the court's conservatives nor its liberals may be able to find a majority in the most controversial cases.

Scalia anchored the court’s four-man conservative wing, with an equal number of liberals on the other side. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the swing vote for years; upon her retirement, Justice Anthony Kennedy came to fill that role, casting the deciding vote in many recent landmark 5-4 rulings, including last year’s case that legalized gay marriage nationwide.

With major cases related to immigration, affirmative action, abortion and unions on the docket, the impact of Scalia’s death could be huge.

“It will have a tremendous impact on the court in virtually every imaginable way,” said Eric Segall, a law professor at Georgia State University and frequent critic of Scalia. “We’ve never been in this position before that I know of – election year, two-term president, huge constitutional cases and a 4-4- court.

“The truth is I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen… . Here’s the hardest question for the court: do they decide the immigration, abortion affirmative action, redistricting and public union sector free speech cases and more, all of which were likely to be 5-4, now that there’s a vacancy? Do they decide them, do they hold them over?”

In the case of a 4-4 tie, the court’s decision would have no effect, and the lower court’s ruling the the matter would stand.

‘One of the true giants of American law’

The political storm notwithstanding, many had a more personal response to the loss of Scalia, who was nominated to the court by Ronald Reagan and was the longest-serving sitting justice.

“Justice Scalia was one of the true giants of American law,” said Georgia Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias, who was a clerk for Scalia on the high court. “No one who has served on the Supreme Court was more dedicated to the Constitution and the rule of law.”

On Saturday, Nahmias called Scalia “a wonderful man, devoted to his family and his faith and a loyal friend and mentor to so many people, including me. I will miss him greatly.”

Other Atlanta lawyers and jurists recalled Scalia with admiration or at least grudging respect, depending, usually, on their politics.

“I met him several times and I found him to be a warm and engaging person, which might be surprising to some people,” said Anne Lewis, president of the Atlanta Chapter of the Federalist Society.

Lewis praised Scalia’s Supreme Court opinions for being well-written and direct.

“I found him to be just as engaging as a speaker as he was as a writer — and also quick-witted and funny,” she said.

Obama nomination might come quickly

The composition of the Senate could also have an impact on the political jockeying that will occur over Scalia’s replacement. Control of the body is up for grabs in November, with McConnell defending 24 Republican seats, compared to the Democrats’ 10. Whoever is president will need 60 senators to confirm his or her nomination to the court.

The issue could also pop up in different senators’ re-election races should the Senate block the president’s nominee.

“The vacancy could be an election year issue in a few different ways,” said Robert Schapiro, dean of Emory University’s law school. “Certainly people heighten the focus in the presidential election on the role of the United States Supreme Court. That’s always a hypothetical issue when a president is elected. Now that question will not be hypothetical, but very real.

“I would assume that if President Obama were to move ahead with a nomination it would be very quickly. It would make sense for him to nominate somebody who has recently been confirmed to another judicial position.”

In his remarks Saturday night, Obama said, “I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time. There will be plenty of time for me to do so and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote.”

‘Served our nation with deep patriotism’

Obama praised Scalia as a “towering legal figure,” but other Democrats were somewhat more circumspect in their tributes.

“Whether or not you agreed with him, Justice Antonin Scalia served our nation with deep patriotism and distinction on the Supreme Court for nearly 30 years,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. “He leaves behind a formidable record of jurisprudence, and a fierce articulation of his understanding of the Constitution.”

Said candidate Clinton: “I did not hold Justice Scalia’s views, but he was a dedicated public servant who brought energy and passion to the bench.”

Republicans, meanwhile, could not have been more effusive in their praise, mourning Scalia as a titan of American jurisprudence.

A statement by U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, said, “With Justice Scalia’s passing, we have lost one of the all-time greats, an incomparable and irreplaceable legal scholar whose dedication to the original intent of the Constitution is sadly becoming all too rare. His voice was always respected and revered, and the opinions he authored influenced the trajectory of our court system as much as any in the history of our Republic.”

‘I would hide my head in a bag’

Scalia was widely acknowledged as the most caustic voice on the court. Here's just one example: his ascerbic and mocking dissent in the same-sex marriage decision last year. He referred to Justice Kennedy's opinion for the majority, which began: "The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity."

Scalia wrote: "If I ever joined an opinion for the court (that began that way), I would hide my head in a bag." The Supreme Court has descended from disciplined legal reasoning "to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie." It is up to the American people, not the courts, to decide the issue of same-sex marriage, Scalia wrote.

The majority opinion, Scalia said, lacks "even a thin veneer of law" and is akin to a "judicial Putsch," a reference to the failed attempt by Adolf Hitler to seize power in Munich in 1923.

Known as the court’s leading conservative, Scalia did not always take a hard-line stance on criminal justice issues.

In fact, said Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Don Samuel, "quite the opposite was true if you consider the dozens of opinions he wrote over the past 30 years that protected the rights of criminal defendants.

"His opinions on the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, his opinions regarding the right to confront your accuser in court, and the right to counsel of choice, reflect his enduring concern with ensuring that constitutional rights are not watered down to meet the exigencies of the circumstances."

Email staff writers Tamar Hallerman and Carrie Teegardin.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.