COLUMBUS – The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has sparked an immediate battle between parties in an already-polarized presidential election year. Despite calls from Senate Republicans to allow the next president to choose a replacement, President Obama has begun fielding candidates.
Chris Walker, an assistant law professor at Ohio State University who clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy, said he believes that whatever happens will raise the stakes in the presidential election dramatically.
“Even if the justice is confirmed before the election, it’s going to be on the minds of the electorate of who this next president’s going to be,” he said. “We’ll likely have at least another one or two appointments to the court, and these appointments last for decades.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has contended that the vacancy should not be filled until after the election, a stance agreed upon by Republican presidential contenders Ben Carson and Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders both support Obama choosing a replacement.
Walker described Scalia as “transformative and influential.” Regardless of how the nomination process plays out, he said, he expects the structure of the high court to change substantially.
“Whoever his replacement is going to be is going to be a dramatic departure from Justice Scalia’s very conservative, at least from a judicial philosophy, point of view,” he said. “It’s really going to change the structure of the court – and, of course, you also have the fact that the four justices that have been conservative are now three.”
Scalia’s death also will have an impact on hotly debated issues because the Supreme Court this term is to decide on cases involving affirmative action, election law, abortion law and immigration, Walker said, “which is a really important one, because the Fifth Circuit below had put a stay on the Obama administration’s executive actions on immigration. If you count the votes up, there could likely be a four-four tie, perhaps – which would mean that it doesn’t go into effect.”
The last U.S. Supreme Court nomination was in 2010, when Justice Elena Kagan was appointed by Obama after the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens.