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Justice Antonin Scalia dies

Justice Antonin Scalia, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan in 1986, has died at the age of 79.

Scalia was one of the conservative stalwarts on a court which frequently splits 5 to 4 on key decisions, so his death, and President Obama’s responsibility to appoint a new justice to fill the vacancy created by it, will undoubtedly unleash a political firestorm– especially in a Presidential election year. (Although Scalia died of natural causes in his sleep, I have no doubt the conspiracy-mongers on the Right are working overtime tonight.)

Obama’s previous two appointments to the court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, replaced liberal-leaning justices, so they maintained the court’s balance– four liberal justices, four conservative justices, and one (Anthony Kennedy) who usually, but not always, votes with the conservatives.

Of course whomever Obama appoints will need to be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate. It is safe to say that if Obama tries to appoint someone like Sotomayor or Kagan to replace Scalia, Senate Republicans will reject the choice.

In fact I wonder if there’s anyone Obama could appoint who would win Senate approval. If not, the court may remain without a full complement of justices for a long time.

This, along with an election that so far is not following any of the traditional rules, will make it a most interesting year stateside.

Update: Watch for the name Sri Srinivasan– an appointment Republicans would probably find it difficult (but not impossible) to turn down.

Further update: And here we go:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement that the Senate controlled by his party should not confirm a replacement for Scalia until after the election.

Obama says he will nominate a replacement for Scalia. If a majority of the Senate doesn’t approve of his choice, they can vote it down. They have no business simply sitting on the nomination for the rest of Obama’s term, which ends next January.