Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, says President Barack Obama should act “without delay” to nominate a replacement for Justin Antonin Scalia.
Scalia's death Saturday at age 79 leaves the high court without its conservative majority and sets up an ideological confrontation over his successor in the maelstrom of a presidential election year.
Scalia was part of a 5-4 conservative majority — with one of the five, Anthony Kennedy, sometimes voting with liberals on the court. Scalia's death leaves President Obama weighing when to nominate a successor, a decision that immediately sparked a political struggle drawing in Congress and the presidential candidates. The GOP presidential candidates have argued that the Republican-controlled Senate should stall Obama's nomination until the next president is sworn in.
But Leahy, reached Saturday night in Vermont, said a delay would leave the country without a fully staffed court.
"We're in February, if this was a week or two before the election, that would be one thing. I can't remember anytime when we've had a nominee in February and we haven't had plenty of time to get them through," Leahy said. "That shouldn't make a difference. If the Republicans are afraid to vote, let them vote present."
The U.S. Marshals Service in Washington confirmed Scalia's death at a private residence in the Big Bend area of West Texas. Spokeswoman Donna Sellers said Scalia had gone to his room the previous evening and was found dead Saturday morning after he did not appear for breakfast.
“I am saddened to learn of Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely passing,” Leahy said earlier in a statement. “Although I often did not agree with his legal opinions, no one doubted his commitment or his brilliance.”
Leahy said Scalia would be remembered for many decisions in his role as the court's conservative leader, but perhaps most for his role in the 2000 presidential election.
“Probably the one where he had the most impact was when Al Gore got more votes for president than Bush but Scalia tilted the election to President Bush. And while I disagreed with his reasoning, I said that’s the decision of the court and we have to live with it.”
Leahy said the president and the senate should now act soon to perform their constitutional duty.
“The American people deserve to have a fully functioning Supreme Court,” he said in a prepared statement.