It is obviously major news any time a Supreme Court justice dies, but Antonin Scalia's death on Saturday sets up an especially high-stakes, consequential political and legal scenario, the likes of which the court and the country have not seen in many years.
Conservatives have held a 5-4 majority on the court for a long time. George W. Bush's appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito—two young, very conservative jurors who were likely to stay in their seats for generations—in 2005 and 2006 cemented an especially firm right-wing tilt on the court that has endured to this day. The Roberts Court has enthusiastically overturned decades-old precedents on issues ranging from voting rights to gun control to campaign finance.
However, Scalia's death, coming as it does during Barack Obama's presidency, has the potential to shift the balance of power back to the court's liberal wing. Moreover, the vacancy on the court is taking place during an election year, in which control of the White House and the Senate are both at stake. If Obama is succeeded by a Democrat, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders could be able to appoint a raft of left-leaning justices, possibly setting up decades of liberal dominance on the court. It is hard to imagine a more politically explosive combination of factors.
Republicans, who hold the majority in the Senate, are extremely aware of these facts, which explains why so many of them demanded in the hours after Scalia's death that Obama not be allowed to nominate a successor to Scalia.
"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," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, agreed. Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, faced with the sudden introduction of the Supreme Court as the top issue in the 2016 campaign, made similar statements.
McConnell's Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, begged to differ.
Speaking on Saturday night, Obama confirmed that he will do what all presidents do when there's a vacancy: nominate someone to fill it. It remains to be seen what the Republicans will do when the ball is in their court, so to speak.
In the immediate term, the court's liberals could wind up victors by default. Scalia's vacancy sets up many potential 4-4 ties in the court's most contentious cases. As writer Linda Hirshman explained in the Washington Post, "A Supreme Court vacancy would favor liberals, because an eight-member court would often [wind up] affirming the decisions of the predominantly liberal lower courts."