Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, an important conservative voice on the high court, has died.
Scalia died in his sleep during a hunting trip in Texas, after telling friends Friday night that he didn’t feel well.
He was the longest-serving current justice on the Supreme Court. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
President Obama called Scalia “one of the towering legal figures of our time.”
“He influenced a generation of judges, lawyers, and students, and profoundly shaped the legal landscape,” Mr. Obama said from Rancho Mirage, California, where he was playing golf. “He will no doubt be remembered as one of the most consequential judges and thinkers to serve on the Supreme Court.”
Pushing back against Republicans who want a new president to nominate a justice in 2017, Mr. Obama said he intends to nominate a replacement for Scalia “in due time.”
Former President George W. Bush issued a statement calling Scalia “a brilliant jurist and an important American.”
“He was a towering figure and important judge on our Nation’s highest court,” Mr. Bush said. “He brought intellect, good judgment, and wit to the bench, and he will be missed by his colleagues and our country.”
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,” the chief justice said in a statement.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said Scalia “did more to advance originalism and judicial restraint than anyone in our time.”
“The passing of this brilliant jurist is a great loss, but his writings — with their plain language and constitutional moorings — will guide generations to come,” Mr. Ryan said. “A devout Catholic, he was fond of quoting St. Paul, who commanded us to ‘think soberly.’ That Justice Scalia did, always, and our republic is better for it. I learned so much from this man. I knew him. I respected him. I looked up to him. We all did.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called him “a champion for the written Constitution” and sent condolences to his family.
A federal official who asked not to be named told the San Antonio Express-News that there was no evidence of foul play, and it appeared that Scalia died of natural causes, either Friday night or Saturday morning.
Friends in the hunting party checked on him in his room at a ranch where they were staying when he did not appear for breakfast Saturday morning.
Mr. Abbott released a statement Saturday afternoon, calling Scalia a man of God, a patriot and an “unwavering defender of the written Constitution.”
“He was the solid rock who turned away so many attempts to depart from and distort the Constitution,” Mr. Abbott said. “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. Cecilia and I extend our deepest condolences to his family, and we will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”
His death creates a likely political battle for President Obama with Senate Republicans, who hold the majority and control the judicial confirmation process. With Scalia reliably in the conservative majority on 5-4 rulings, a liberal nominee would tip the balance of power on the court.
There were some quick calls from Republicans for the president to forgo a nomination, and to allow the next president to nominate Scalia’s successor.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican and a leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, called Scalia “a champion of our liberties and a stalwart defender of the Constitution.”
“He will go down as one of the few Justices who single-handedly changed the course of legal history,” Mr. Cruz said on Facebook. “He authored some of the most important decisions ever, including District of Columbia v. Heller, which recognized our fundamental right under the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms. He was an unrelenting defender of religious liberty, free speech, federalism, the constitutional separation of powers, and private property rights.”
Among those already being mentioned as a possible nominee by Mr. Obama is Srikanth “Sri” Srinivasan, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, who was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 97-0 in 2013. He was the principal deputy solicitor general of the United States prior to becoming a judge.
Scalia was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and attended Georgetown University as an undergraduate before earning his law degree at Harvard Law School.
He served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including as an assistant attorney general, before then-President Reagan nominated him to the federal bench in 1982.
In 1986, Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court to fill the associate justice seat vacated when Justice William Rehnquist was elevated to Chief Justice.
For nearly 30 years, Scalia was at the core of the conservative bloc on the high court.
The National Right to Life Committee said Scalia “steadfastly defended the right of elected lawmakers to enact laws that protect unborn children and their mothers, and he often issued powerful critiques of the judicially manufactured barriers that limited such legislative efforts.
University of Richmond law school professor Carl Tobias called Scalia “a giant in the law, a superb writer, a brilliant and funny speaker and a leader of conservativism on the Court.” He noted that federal appeals court Judge Richard Posner referred to Scalia as “the most influential justice in the last quarter century.”
Referring to the emerging debate over the timing of a nomination to replace him, Mr. Tobias said the Supreme Court “needs all of its justices to operate properly.”
“I think that President Obama can appoint someone, if he chooses wisely and moves expeditiously, and the Senate discharges its constitutional responsibility,” he said. “There are many exceptional candidates who would be excellent justices.”
Scalia is survived by his wife, Maureen, and their nine children.