NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP)– U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was discovered dead at a West Texas Ranch on Saturday.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made the announcement in a statement. San Antonio News-Express, the first to report Scalia’s death, said he was found dead in his room at a West Texas resort.
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The U.S. Marshal’s Service in Washington confirmed Scalia’s death at a private residence in the Big Bend area of South Texas.
The service’s spokeswoman, Donna Sellers, said Scalia had retired for the evening and was found dead Saturday morning when he did not appear for breakfast.
CBS News reports a priest gave last rites to the 79-year-old Scalia.
Scalia grew up in Elmhurst, Queens, and was the first Italian-American member of the Supreme Court.
In a statement obtained by CBS News, Chief Justice John Roberts called Scalia, “an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues.”
“His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he so loyally served. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife Maureen and his family,” Roberts said.
The 79-year-old was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1986 by Ronald Reagan and was widely known as one of the most conservative members.
“Justice Antonin Scalia was a man of God, a patriot, and an unwavering defender of the written Constitution and the Rule of Law. He was the solid rock who turned away so many attempts to depart from and distort the Constitution. His fierce loyalty to the Constitution set an unmatched example, not just for judges and lawyers, but for all Americans. We mourn his passing, and we pray that his successor on the Supreme Court will take his place as a champion for the written Constitution and the Rule of Law,” Abbott said in a statement.
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump called Scalia’s death a “massive setback for the Conservative movement.”
During the CBS presidential debate on Saturday night, Trump led off the event by urging Senate Republicans to keep President Obama from nominating a new justice.
“This is a tremendous blow to conservatism, a tremendous blow frankly to our country,” he said. “I think it’s up to [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it. It’s called delay, delay, delay.”
Hillary Clinton said that her thoughts and prayers are with Scalia’s family, and that he was a dedicated public servant who brought energy and passion to the court. She also commented on calls for his seat to remain empty.
“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 in a statement.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Scalia was “one of the greatest Justices in history.”
“He was an unrelenting defender of religious liberty, free speech, federalism, the constitutional separation of powers, and private property rights. All liberty-loving Americans should be in mourning,” the Republican presidential candidate said in a statement.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie released a statement saying, “Justice Scalia was the bedrock of the Court who, with unmistakable wit and good humor, was unwavering in his fidelity to the Constitution and a fierce advocate and protector of the liberties and freedoms it grants to us all as Americans.”
CBS News Chief Legal Correspondent Jan Crawford said it will be very unlikely for President Barack Obama to get a Supreme Court nominee through the Republican-led Senate.
“It could be very unlikely that President Obama that will get that nomination,” Crawford said. “This court could remain with eight justices until the next president takes office. I think that’s very unclear what will happen.”
She added, “This vote will change the balance of the Supreme Court if a liberal is nominated.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that Obama should not be blocked by lawmakers over his Supreme Court nominee.
“I hope that no one will use this sad news to suggest that the President or the Senate should not perform its constitutional duty. The American people deserve to have a fully functioning Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States is too important to our democracy for it to be understaffed for partisan reasons. It is only February. The President and the Senate should get to work without delay to nominate, consider and confirm the next justice to serve on the Supreme Court,” Leahy said.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” in 2008, Scalia said the Constitution is an “enduring” document he wanted to defend.
“It’s what did the words mean to the people who ratified the Bill of Rights or who ratified the Constitution,” Scalia told correspondent Lesley Stahl.
He then added, “Because values change, legislatures abolish the death penalty, permit same-sex marriage if they want, abolish laws against homosexual conduct. That’s how the change in a society occurs. Society doesn’t change through a Constitution.”
Scalia’s impact on the court was muted by his seeming disregard for moderating his views to help build consensus, although he was held in deep affection by his ideological opposites Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. Scalia and Ginsburg shared a love of opera. He persuaded Kagan to join him on hunting trips. The three justices were all from New York.
His 2008 opinion for the court in favor of gun rights drew heavily on the history of the Second Amendment and was his crowning moment on the bench. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms.
He could be a strong supporter of privacy in cases involving police searches and defendants’ rights. Indeed, Scalia often said he should be the “poster child” for the criminal defense bar.
But he also voted consistently to let states outlaw abortions, to allow a closer relationship between government and religion, to permit executions and to limit lawsuits.
He was in the court’s majority in the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, which effectively decided the presidential election for Republican George W. Bush. “Get over it,” Scalia would famously say at speaking engagements in the ensuing years whenever the topic arose.
Bush later named one of Scalia’s sons, Eugene, to an administration job, but the Senate refused to confirm him. Eugene Scalia served as the Labor Department solicitor temporarily in a recess appointment.
A smoker of cigarettes and pipes, Scalia enjoyed baseball, poker, hunting and the piano. He was an enthusiastic singer at court Christmas parties and other musical gatherings, and once appeared on stage with Ginsburg as a Washington Opera extra.
Ginsburg once said that Scalia was “an absolutely charming man, and he can make even the most sober judge laugh.” She said that she urged her friend to tone down his dissenting opinions “because he’ll be more effective if he is not so polemical. I’m not always successful.”
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