Top Republicans Call for Delay on Supreme Court Nomination in Wake of Scalia's Death

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Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Senator Ted Cruz, businessman Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio pause for a moment of silence in honor of deceased Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia before the start of the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate on Saturday. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Updated | In the wake of the unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday, many of the presidential candidates and top Republicans were quick to weigh in on whether President Obama should make a nomination for the now-vacant seat.

Scalia's death came amid an already competitive election season in which control of both the White House and Congress are at stake. Now, the judicial branch of government is in play as well.

Scalia was found dead Saturday at the Cibolo Creek Ranch in Texas. He was 79. He became the first Italian-American to sit on the nation's highest court when he was sworn in by then-President Ronald Reagan in September 1986. The leading conservative voice on the nine-justice court, Scalia often clashed with left-leaning justices.

It was less than an hour after news of Scalia's death when speculation about the political implications began Saturday. The biggest battle is likely to be over the timing of a nomination to fill his seat. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, one of the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination, took to Twitter quickly to declare: "We owe it to him, & the Nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next President names his replacement."

Similarly and notably, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said legislators should wait to confirm a replacement until the new president takes office. As the top Republican in the Senate, McConnell's opinion is significant: He makes the final schedule on what comes up for votes on the Senate floor.

"The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president," McConnell said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the top Democrat in his legislative chamber, said the president should send the nominee immediately because there currently are many important issues before the Supreme Court. Scalia's death comes a month before the court is set to hear its biggest abortion case in years. The case is a challenge to a Texas law placing stringent regulations on abortion providers, which critics argue has unconstitutionally limited women's access to abortion.

"Would be unprecedented in recent history for [Supreme Court] to go year with vacancy. And shameful abdication of our constitutional responsibility," Reid said in a tweet.

A top aide to Republican Senator Mike Lee, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee—which is responsible for approving judicial nominations—predicted that if Obama names a nominee, as he no doubt will do, the GOP-controlled Senate will block the candidate. "What is less than zero? The chances of Obama successfully appointing a Supreme Court Justice to replace Scalia?" Conn Carroll, Lee's communications director, tweeted.

If Republicans do successfully stall the confirmation of an Obama nominee, it would leave a 4-to-4 split between the Supreme Court's liberal and conservative wings, which would also be bad news for Democrats. According to a New York Times report on a 1987 vacancy on the court that led to a similar deadlock, an even split between justices on a decision (as opposed to the majority decisions that result when the court has its full slate of nine justices) "leaves the lower court's decision in the case intact and binding on the immediate parties without setting a national precedent, essentially as though the Supreme Court had not agreed to review the case at all." Other cases may have to be re-argued under a new court.

That could mean delays for several politically charged cases before the court this year. Supreme Court arguments are scheduled for March. The court also agreed in January to review an appeals court decision blocking Obama's executive action on immigration, deferring deportation for several classes of undocumented immigrants. Other cases before the Supreme Court this term, or which the court could potentially take up, affect the fundamentals of American democracy, from the legality of voter ID laws to how voting districts are drawn.

Obama briefly addressed the country just before 9 p.m. ET. Ahead of a summit with Asian countries next week, the president is on a golf vacation in Rancho Mirage, California.

"Obviously today is a time to remember Justice Scalia's legacy," Obama said. "I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time. There will be plenty of time to do so, and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility."

Obama called the conservative justice a "larger than life" presence on the bench and one of the "towering legal figures of our time," who influenced a generation of judges, lawyers and students.

Confirmation of Scalia's death came through just hours before a presidential debate between the six remaining Republican presidential candidates.

Other Republican candidates also issued statements following Scalia's death. Donald Trump said in a tweet the loss of Scalia on the Supreme Court "is a massive setback for the conservative movement and our COUNTRY!"

Florida Senator Marco Rubio also said a nominee shouldn't be confirmed until the new president has taken control of the White House.

"The next president must nominate a justice who will continue Justice Scalia's unwavering belief in the founding principles that we hold dear," Rubio said in a statement.

Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon in the presidential race, called on the Senate to stop any attempts to fill Scalia's crucial seat during Obama's administration. "It is imperative that the Senate not allow President Obama to diminish his legacy by trying to nominate an individual who would carry on his wishes to subvert the will of the people," he said in a statement.

Ohio Governor John Kasich expressed his condolences to Scalia's family, but didn't weigh in on which president should confirm the nominee. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said Scalia was his favorite justice because he viewed the Constitution—and the responsibility of judges to interpret it correctly—with the "utmost seriousness."

"Now it is up to all of us to fight for the principles Justice Scalia espoused and carry forth his legacy," Bush said in a statement.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton criticized Republicans who have spoken out against filling Scalia's seat soon.

"The Republicans in the Senate and on the campaign trail who are calling for Justice Scalia's seat to remain vacant dishonor our Constitution. The Senate has a constitutional responsibility here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons," she said.

And her challenger, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, praised Scalia's legacy: "While I differed with Justice Scalia's views and jurisprudence, he was a brilliant, colorful and outspoken member of the Supreme Court."

This story has been updated to include remarks from Obama and Clinton.

Top Republicans Call for Delay on Supreme Court Nomination in Wake of Scalia's Death | U.S.