The Brief: Big Questions Loom After Scalia’s Sudden Death

The Big Conversation

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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away unexpectedly over the weekend in West Texas, an event that is having an immediate impact on the court, the U.S. Senate and the 2016 presidential race as well.

Scalia had carved out a reputation in his nearly 30 years on the Supreme Court as quite possibly the most conservative member of the court. So the question of whether Barack Obama could successfully nominate a successor in the middle of a polarizing presidential election emerged front and center in the immediate aftermath of news of Scalia’s death.

Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Tribune’s Terri Langford and Jordan Rudner that the odds of an Obama appointee making it to the court are “slim to none.”

“Obama might nominate somebody, but the odds of that vacancy being filled before next year approach zero,” Levinson said. “The Republican Party won’t accept anybody who would be nominated by Obama.”

“They’re going to have to get used to being an eight-person court for at least the next year,” he added.

The Tribune’s Patrick Svitek reported that GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz is already moving quickly to make the future of the court a campaign issue.

Svitek wrote, “The U.S. senator from Texas is vowing to put up a fight if President Barack Obama tries to nominate a replacement, and Cruz is seeking to inject even more drama in to the race for the White House, declaring it a ‘referendum on the Supreme Court.’”

Partisans on the other side of the aisle were similarly rallying their forces this weekend.

The Tribune’s Jamie Lovegrove reported that Obama’s ability to nominate a successor to Scalia was raised at a Hillary Clinton campaign event in Houston on Sunday.

Scalia’s “sad passing now highlights the stakes that we are fighting for and the absolute loss that we will face if a Republican is victorious,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, told the Tribune. “We know now that Republicans will have no fairness in any selection process, they will simply be seeking someone who will do everything they can to undermine the rights of the vulnerable.”

Scalia’s death also has a big impact on the court’s remaining term, which has several important cases coming out of Texas pending.

Republican officeholders in Texas have counted on the conservative Scalia “over and over in winning and losing cases that involved redistricting, environmental regulation, same-sex marriage, college admissions — even the elevation of a Texas governor to the White House.

“He might have been at their side in four Texas cases now pending before the court on legal questions about undocumented immigrants, the longstanding one-person-one-vote principle in election law, a challenge to the state’s regulation of abortion facilities and, once again, on the consideration of race in college admissions.”

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