The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday February 8th

View from the Hill

Scalia's death prompts partisan debate over replacement

Flags in North Carolina and across the country were flown at half-staff for the past week in remembrance of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Scalia was found dead Feb. 13 while on a hunting trip in Texas. He was 79 and the U.S. Supreme Court's longest serving justice.

In his 30 years on the court, Scalia earned a reputation as one of the most impactful justices in recent memory.

“He wasn’t just another conservative vote,” said Jim Stimson, a political science professor at UNC. “He was the anchor of the conservative movement in the judiciary.”

Scalia authored some of the most important decisions and dissenting opinions the court made during his time on the bench, including the now-famous Citizens United case and District of Columbia v. Heller.

Despite his willingness to disagree with his colleagues on the court and curmudgeonly behavior, Scalia was respected by people across ideological backgrounds.

Both Damian Walker, a UNC sophomore political science and economics double major and member of the College Republicans, and Courtney Sams, junior political science major and president of UNC Young Democrats, spoke highly of Scalia's service to the country.

“The passing of Justice Scalia is a national tragedy," Sams said. "He was so important to one of the most important institutions in the United States for so long."

Scalia's unexpected death has removed his strong voice for originalist constitutional perspective from the court's roster, and sparked a partisan debate over President Barack Obama’s constitutional duty to nominate a new justice.

Immediately following Scalia's death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced his intention to refuse to hear any of the president's nominations. Some Republicans, including Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., have declared their intent to go through normal confirmation proceedings.

“There will be a drawn out process, in which Republicans will try to delay any Obama nominee,” said Kerry Haynie, professor of political science at Duke University.

Until a new justice is named, the court will have eight members — which could cause a problem in the event of an even vote. 

“If you have a 4-4 split, the rulings of the lower courts will be the law that prevails … You can’t send it up, you’d just be stuck,” Haynie said.

One of those lower court decisions that has particular importance to North Carolina is the recent federal court ruling that two of the state's congressional districts were gerrymandered along racial lines. 

“Without Scalia on the Court, it’s even more likely that we’ll see the prior decision upheld," Stimson said. "North Carolina will have to move ahead with redrawing the affected districts."

And potential for widespread impact does not apply only to the Tar Heel state. The court is also scheduled to hear cases on other partisan issues which might produce the 4-4 split. 

Just a sampling of these issues include abortion, affirmative action, further objections to the Affordable Care Act and the president’s powers on immigration and deportation.

Scalia’s death also has the potential to shape the race for the executive branch. If the Senate does block Obama’s nominee, it could shift enormous importance onto the outcome of the ongoing 2016 presidential elections.

“This partisan dispute in Congress could actually go a long way towards determining who our next president is,” said Haynie. “This appointment will certainly become a selection criterion in voter’s minds … It means that this election may be the most important in generations.”

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