The sudden and unexpected death Saturday of Justice Antonin Scalia gives President Obama an unprecedented opening to shift the balance of the Supreme Court – setting up a potentially seismic battle with Congress in the waning days of his presidency.
Conservatives, as they mourned the 79-year-old jurist’s passing Saturday, already were warning the president against trying to pull the court to the left with a controversial appointment in the heat of a presidential election.
“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, R-Ky., said in a statement.
Obama signaled Saturday night he would not heed such warnings, saying he plans to nominate a successor.
The vacancy on the high court marks a historic opportunity for the sitting president – a conservative seat he now has the power to fill, potentially tilting the balance in a court that for years has broken 5-4 on key decisions. The president’s past two appointments – Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – were, by contrast, to fill seats vacated by similarly liberal-leaning justices.
Scalia was no such justice.