The Death of Antonin Scalia and the Political Battle to Replace Him

Why Republicans and Democrats Began Fighting Within Minutes

The political battle over replacing Antonin Scalia began within minutes of the conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice's unexpected death in February 2016.

Republicans launched the initial shot in the election-year war of words, seeking to pre-empt Democratic President Barack Obama by calling on him to leave the choice of Scalia's replacement to his successor. 

“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,” the Senate majority leader, Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, said about an hour after news of Scalia's death was made public.

Obama was quick with a reply, telling the White House press corps that he would indeed make a selection for the nation's highest court before his second term ends.

"I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time," Obama said. "There will be plenty of time for me to do so, and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote. These are responsibilities that I take seriously, as should everyone. They’re bigger than any one party. They are about our democracy. They’re about the institution to which Justice Scalia dedicated his professional life, and making sure it continues to function as the beacon of justice that our Founders envisioned."

Scalia's death set the stage for an epic political battle in an already contentious presidential-election year that saw the unexpected rise of the trash-talking billionaire Donald Trump as the likely Republican presidential nominee. The stakes were high, too: The political and ideological balance of the court would tip in favor of Scalia's nominee.

Here's what you need to know about the fight to replace Scalia and its impact on the nation.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan was nominated by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan was nominated by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Any Obama nominee to replace Scalia would likely hold similar political  and constitutional beliefs than do his first to choices to the court, both of whom were confirmed by the Senate to become justices. So who are Obama's two choices for the court? And what do they believe? Here's a look. Read more ...  More »

Members of the U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court members (first row L-R) Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, (back row L-R) Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Samuel Alito and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News

One of the arguments against Obama making a nomination in the final year of his final term is that there wasn't enough time to evaluate the candidate and put her through the confirmation process.

There were 342 days remaining in Obama's term at the time of Scalia's death. But it takes less than a month — an average of 25 days, to be precise — for Supreme Court nominees to be either confirmed or rejected, or in some cases to withdraw from consideration altogether. Read more ... More »

Donald Trump Supreme Court Nominees
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has identified two people he's nominate to the U.S. Supreme Court if elected. Tom Pennington / Getty Images

Let's say Obama decides not to nominate a replacement for Scalia. Or that he does nominate someone but the Senate Judiciary Committee refuses to hold hearings. And let's say Donald Trump wins the 2016 presidential election. Then what? 

Then Trump gets to pick. And if that's the case, we already have some idea of the kind of Supreme Court justice he's looking for. Trump has dropped the names of at least two people he'd pick for the court. Read more ... More »

Ronald Reagan Campaigns in 1984
Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential victory is considered to be a landslide. Dirck Halstead / Getty Images Contributor

It's true that Obama would be the first president since Ronald Reagan to nominate three Supreme Court justices, a third of the nine-member panel. But it's not that unusual. Since 1869, 12 of our 24 presidents successfully nominated at least three members of the Supreme Court. Several chose more than that. Read more ... More »

Supreme Court Reviews Rights Of Guantanamo Detainees
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It appeared increasingly unlikely through 2016 that Obama would be able to get a permanent replacement for Scalia onto the bench. But there was discussion of another strategy: a recess appointment.

The Constitution allows the president to appoint temporary replacements to any federal office without getting approval from the U.S. Senate. But there would be a high political cost to such a maneuver. Read more ... More »

Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan was nominated by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan was nominated by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Here's a step-by-step look at how the selection of a Supreme Court nominee and her confirmation should work. It is, after all, one of the most important responsibilities of our president and U.S. Senate. Read more ...

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