Balance of high court suddenly at stake

Balance of high court suddenly at stake
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The sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia has put the balance of the Supreme Court up for grabs, setting up a controversial battle over who President Obama will nominate.

The five justices on the court picked by Republican presidents — Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy — have often voted together as a bloc, giving the court a conservative majority.

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But with the sudden passing Saturday of Scalia, Obama has the chance to alter the partisan balance of the court.

That's an outcome Republicans appear determined to avoid.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table Senate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo On The Money — Biden stresses calm amid omicron fears MORE (R-Ky.) has already said the decision about the court vacancy should be left to the next president, a position that has been echoed by some of the Republican Party's leading presidential contenders.

“The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice," he said in a statement. "Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”

In recent years, historic rulings on issues like same-sex marriage and campaign contributions have all come down to 5-4 decisions, with Kennedy typically the swing vote between the liberal and conservative wings of the court.

Obama has already filled two seats on the Supreme Court, with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Scalia, who was nominated to the court in 1986 by Ronald Reagan, was one of the court’s most reliably conservative votes.

Any vote Scalia cast on cases that have not been publicly decided are now void, which means the court could split 4-4 on some major cases that were argued earlier this term, including one challenging the use of affirmative action in higher education.

In June, Roberts, Thomas, Alito and Kennedy joined Scalia in a 5-4 decision to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency’s landmark air quality rule that set first-ever limits on mercury, arsenic and acid gases emitted by coal-fired power plants.

Scalia was also in the majority in 2014 when the court ruled 5-4 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores that for-profit religious corporations are not required to pay for contraceptive coverage for female employees.

And advocates for campaign finance reform are still fighting the 2010 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission. The landmark case, in which Scalia joined the majority, allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on politics, so long as they do not coordinate with campaigns or parties.