Leaders Attend Scalia Memorial Service in Washington

Pallbearers carry the casket down the aisle at the start of the funeral Mass for Associate Justice Antonin Scalia at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, February 20. Doug Mills/Pool via Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's memorial service on Saturday provided a brief respite for official Washington from the fierce battle over his succession, with dozens of political and legal leaders and others in attendance.

Scalia's casket was brought into the blue-domed Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the nation's largest Catholic church where dozens of priests took part in the funeral mass, including his son, the Reverend Paul Scalia.

An estimated 4,000 people looked on, including other Scalia family members, the court's remaining eight justices, members of Congress and Vice President Joseph Biden.

A staunch conservative and the court's longest-serving member, Justice Scalia died last Saturday at age 79 at a Texas hunting resort, sparking off a political struggle that promises to reshape the 2016 election campaigns.

Presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, was among those at the service. Like other Republicans, he has said that President Barack Obama, a Democrat, should not choose Scalia's replacement.

Rather, Republicans are saying no one should be named until after the presidential election in November, hoping that one of their own will be elected and get to choose the next justice.

Under law, the U.S. president is responsible for nominating Supreme Court justices to their lifetime appointments, subject to Senate review and confirmation. Appointing a justice to the court is one of the biggest decisions a U.S. president can make. Obama has vowed to select a successor to Scalia.

If he does so, Senate Republicans have threatened to block any nominee put forward by Obama, a stance likely to become an issue in the presidential race and in election year contests for seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, a majority of Americans believe it should be up to Obama to nominate the next justice, with opinion divided along ideological party lines.

This year the normally nine-justice court is set to decide its first major abortion case in nearly a decade, as well as cases on voting rights, affirmative action and immigration.

The new justice's politics could tilt the court's balance. After Scalia's death, it has four conservative and four liberal members.

Appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1986, Scalia became known as a brilliant jurist in an era of conservative court dominance. He opposed abortion and same-sex marriage and supported the death penalty and gun rights.