The Death of Antonin Scalia

The death of Scalia made headlines across UK and US media outlets, and dominated Twitter as the story broke. It’s importance should be clear to students of Politics and we don’t intend to write lots of stories on this. But, a few points need drawing out that are useful. The summary below is not exhaustive but until Obama nominates someone and the dust has settled a little more, here are the initial thoughts:

1. The vacancy it creates – unlike Obama’s other two vacancies, this is notable as Scalia was a conservative stalwart of the Court. After the replacement of Alito for O’Connor broke the convention of replacing like-for-like, Obama has some freedom here to ‘rebalance’ the Court and appoint a more liberal Justice.

2. The Congressional battle – within hours of his death, McConnell (R – Senate Majority Leader) had said Obama should wait for a new president, Reid (D – Senate Minority Leader) said Obama had the right to appoint, Obama said he would appoint, and just about everyone else weighed in. This was backed up in the following days by Republicans in Congress saying they would not confirm an Obama nominee and McConnell saying there was not a ‘snowball’s chance in hell’ of Obama getting a nominee through. This is useful for evidence of partisanship in Congress (Unit 3 – parties, Unit 4 Congress), for lame duck presidents (Unit 4 – President) and for the appointment process of Supreme Court Justices (Unit 4 – Supreme Court). Senator McCain even objected to Obama’s goal of appointing someone referring to him as a ‘lame duck’ (

3. The appointment – There are a number of suggestions of who Obama might appoint (and even rumours that if Obama does not get someone through, that the next President (if Democratic) might try and appoint Obama!) and watching who he does put forward will be excellent evidence for how a president chooses someone for the Court.

4. The cases to be heard – In the absence of a clear majority in a Supreme Court case, the verdict of the lower court stands. Therefore with the court now having a (roughly) equal split of conservatives and liberals, there is a chance of more 4-4 splits and with some big cases coming up this could be problematic and impede the highest court in the US from doing it’s job.

5. Scalia himself – The role of Scalia on the Court, his longevity of service, ideology and originalism and many dissents have made him a loved/hated figure in American politics. His impact however is beyond doubt and there are many obituaries/in memorium posts which cover his life and impact. This provides excellent evidence for the role of Justices on the court, their ideology, their impact and so on. Just some of these are listed below but there are many more.