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BREAKING: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Dead at 79

President Obama's nominee can shift balance of power in judicial branch ...

BREAKING: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Dead at 79

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Reports are emerging that Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia has died.

An El Paso source close to Justice Antonin Scalia tells ABC-7 that the 79-year-old died in his sleep last night after a day of quail hunting at Cibolo Creek Ranch outside of Marfa, Texas.

The Justice did not report feeling ill and retired to his room after dinner. The source, who was traveling with Scalia, told ABC-7 an El Paso priest has been called to Marfa.

Scalia was the longest-serving current Justice on the Supreme Court. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

The conservative Justice, who was accounted to be a jurist both brilliant and controversial — and whose opinions were often entertaining reads — is reported to have died of natural causes. Scalia was a devout Catholic who discussed his faith openly in a notable interview with New York magazine.

The Supreme Court has long been considered ideologically divided, with Scalia comprising part of a reliably “conservative” group that included Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito, and a “liberal” group comprised of justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen G. Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, with Justice Anthony Kennedy — like Scalia, 79 years of age — considered the often unpredictable “swing” vote. The court is currently preparing to decide on key cases of import to the Church, including the suit brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor against the Obama Administration’s HHS Mandate, a case in which Scalia’s vote to protect religious liberties was considered both crucial and assured.

Scalia’s death allows President Obama to nominate a new justice — presumably one in alignment with his political ideology, and likely to tilt the balance of the Supreme Court into a more “progressive” position. Justices Kagan and Sotomayor were seated during Obama’s presidency.

UPDATE: The GOP is already suggesting that they will stall any effort to name a replacement for Scalia. Shortly after his death was announced, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared, “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.”

Several Republican presidential candidates have echoed those sentiments. There is precedent for stalling or even rejecting nominees, and even for a recess appointment to the Court. Chief Justice Earl Warren was a recess appointment.

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose health has been precarious, is, at age 82, the oldest member of the Supreme Court; she has resisted calls for her retirement. Whether Scalia’s demise will change that is unclear. If President Obama is able to sit a replacement for Scalia, Ginsberg could conceivably resign in order to prevent a possibility of expiring in office under a Republican president, thus allowing a younger liberal to take her seat, and potentially shaping the makeup of the court for decades.

It is safe to say that American politics and American jurisprudence at the federal level has just become more interesting and more fraught with drama and speculation as the presidential race heats up. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that even those who disagreed vehemently and often with Justice Scalia seem sincerely grieved by his death:

When he left Chicago to join the court of appeals in Washington, he asked me to come to his office. He said, with a paternal air and considerable shyness, that he knew I would be teaching some of his courses, and I was the one he’d like to have his files — filled with illuminating nuggets about the law, which he had accumulated over a period of many years. To a kid law professor, that was an act of extraordinary generosity, carried out quietly and with grace.

He was a great man, and a deeply good one.

Antonin Scalia is survived by his wife, Maureen McCarthy, and nine children, including Father Paul Scalia of the Diocese of Arlington.