Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, was found dead Saturday, throwing the future of the high court into question and setting up a tense debate among Senate leaders about how to move forward.
The White House is expected to submit a nomination to replace Scalia, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the vacancy should not be filled until there is a new president.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice," McConnell said in a statement. "Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”
The Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., argued that President Barack Obama should nominate a justice. Since taking office, Obama has nominated two justices to the Supreme Court.
"The President can and should send the Senate a nominee right away. With so many important issues pending before the Supreme Court, the Senate has a responsibility to fill vacancies as soon as possible," Reid said. "It would be unprecedented in recent history for the Supreme Court to go a year with a vacant seat. Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate's most essential Constitutional responsibilities.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said it has been standard practice not to choose a Supreme Court justice in a presidential election year.
"Given the huge divide in the country, and the fact that this President, above all others, has made no bones about his goal to use the courts to circumvent Congress and push through his own agenda, it only makes sense that we defer to the American people who will elect a new president to select the next Supreme Court Justice,” Grassley said.
But the committee's ranking member, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., also said the president should nominate, and the Senate should confirm, a justice quickly.
"The Supreme Court of the United States is too important to our democracy for it to be understaffed for partisan reasons," Leahy said. "It is only February."
Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in the 1988 presidential year, although he was nominated in November 1987.
Since the Ford Administration, the average number of days from nomination to final Senate vote is 67 days (2.2 months), according to the Congressional Research Search. Scalia's death leaves the court evenly split, with four justices nominated by Republican presidents and four nominated by Democrats.
The Senate nominated Scalia on June 24, 1986 and confirmed in September by a vote of 98-0, after he was nominated by President Ronald Reagan. For the past 30 years, Scalia has been a stalwart conservative on the bench.
Scalia was found dead of apparent natural causes on a luxury resort in West Texas, the San Antonio Express-News reported , citing federal officials. According to a report, Scalia arrived at the ranch on Friday and attended a private party with about 40 people. When he did not appear for breakfast, a person associated with the ranch went to his room and found a body.
Scalia's death not only throws into question the court's balance for the remainder of the current term, but also sets up a likely confrontation between the president and the Republican-controlled Senate. President Barack Obama and many Democrats are likely to see the court's vacancy as an opportunity to install a more liberal justice. Republicans are likely to resist, with an eye toward the possibility that a Republican victory in the presidential election in November would enable the new president to make a conservative appointment.
Randolph Walerius contributed to this report. See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.