Antonin Scalia and the Balance of Power

In a very surprising turn of events, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died this weekend. This could change the face of the 2016 US general election, as well as American culture for the next decade or two, depending on who picks Scalia’s successor.

Conservative stalwart

The US Supreme Court is the country’s highest judicial body and has nine members. These are appointed by US Presidents so typically, the candidates a particular Commander-in-Chief picks for the Supreme Court align with their political views. It’s a way of ensuring that a President’s legacy will reverberate across the decades.

Before this weekend there were nine Supreme Court Justices. Four were appointed by Democratic presidents; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. Five were appointed by Republican Presidents; John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia. The first Italian-American to sit on the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia has become a famous conservative stalwart over the years who believed in ‘originalism;’ the idea that the US Constitution has a fixed meaning which doesn’t change with the times.

Obama’s opportunity

The BBC reports that Antonin Scalia died in his sleep on Saturday 13th February 2016. This means that only eight justices – four conservative, four liberal, now sit on the Court. The publication notes that even in Scalia’s absence, they’ll still have to hear cases on a number of controversial topics including abortion rights this term.

But with only eight justices and the Supreme Court’s habit in recent years of splitting along ideological lines, the judicial body may not be able to make definitive decisions in these cases. Basically, this would render the Supreme Court powerless as the lower court’s decision will stay in effect in this instance. It’s current US President Barack Obama’s duty to pick Scalia’s successor and so far he’s said he’ll do so in due course.

Republican opposition

The issue for Obama is that he must get his pick for the Supreme Court approved by the Senate, which at present is controlled by the Republican Party. Obama’s commented that he hopes the Senate will respect his choice and “fulfil its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and timely vote.” In contrast, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has argued the post shouldn’t be filled “until we have a new President,” which will be 20th January 2017.

Republican candidates running for the Oval Office such as Ted Cruz have echoed McConnell’s sentiments. Meanwhile their Democratic counterparts, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, have sided with Obama. To understand why, you have to know the power of the Supreme Court. Let’s look at the ‘Citizen’s United’ case in 2010. Issued by it’s conservative voting bloc of the Supreme Court, this ruling basically removed key barriers to spending money in political races. According to the LA Times as of early 2015, spending on Senate elections has doubled and now the vast majority of contributions to American political campaigns come from the mega-rich, essentially allowing a few billionaires to buy the system.

Bitter struggle

In other words, the death of Antonin Scalia has presented the Democrats and liberals everywhere with a golden opportunity. They could use it as a chance to pick a liberal Supreme Court justice who’ll swing the balance of power in their favour and reverse years of conservative-orientated rulings such as Citizen’s United, which have had a massive impact on American life.

Yet the Democrats need to get past their opponents, who hold the will and the power to block their effort for months, They’ll almost certainly try to stall the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice, in hopes that a Republican will become the next US president and pick a conservative candidate. Antonin Scalia’s death has likely added a new dimension to the US Presidential race; candidates will strive to persuade voters that they’re the best person to pick Scalia’s successor in 2017 and reshape the United States’ cultural landscape for years to come.

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