Scalia death sparks election-year fight over filling vacancy

People stand in line hoping to enter the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, for arguments in the 'Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association' case. The justices were to hear arguments in a case that challenges the right of public-employee unions to collect fees from teachers, firefighters and other state and local government workers who choose not to become members. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Justice Antonin Scalia’s death immediately sparked a new and heated election-year fight over whether President Barack Obama should fill the high court vacancy, with Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail arguing the nomination should fall to the next president.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

His position was echoed by a pair of senators seeking the GOP presidential nomination: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Democrats were outraged. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the chamber’s top Democrat said Obama should send the Senate a nominee “right away.”

Previous story: Supreme Court Justice Scalia dies during hunting trip

He noted that the court is considering a number of major issues and said, “It would be unprecedented in recent history for the Supreme Court to go a year with a vacant seat.”

Obama was traveling in California. The White House issued a statement offering condolences to Scalia’s family but did not provide any details about whether Obama planned to nominate a replacement.

Before Scalia’s death, the court was ideologically split with many 5-4 decisions. The remaining justices are generally divided among four conservative votes and four liberal votes – leaving the next nominee crucial to the court’s direction, potentially for years to come.

Current cases that already have been argued by the court but not decided involve Obama’s executive orders easing immigration rules for many people in the country illegally, a Texas case that could increase Hispanics’ voting strength, another Texas case challenging affirmative action rules at the University of Texas, a California case challenging employee unions’ practice of requiring public school teachers to pay dues for union activities and yet another Texas case challenging a law that could force many clinics offering abortion services to close.

When there is a 4-4 tie, a distinct possibility this spring, the result is basically to affirm the lower court decision before the case came to the Supreme Court. On a major issue, the high court would be likely to rehear the case once it had its full membership.

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