US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia found dead

US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia found dead

US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia found dead
Staunchly conservative US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia was found dead today while on a hunting trip in Texas, triggering a fierce political fight in the run-up to the presidential election over his successor that would decide the leaning in the highest judicial body.

Scalia was 79. The cause of death of the country's longest-serving justice was not immediately known.

He was a guest at the Cibolo Creek Ranch, a resort in the Big Bend region south of Marfa, and had arrived at the 30,000- acre ranch on Friday, according to a federal official. He had also attended a private party with about 40 people last night. Calling the senior Justice as "larger than life" and a "brilliant legal mind", President Barack Obama paid tribute to Scalia and said he would honour his responsibility to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by his death.

Scalia's unexpected death triggered a political tussle over the successor as political leaders on both sides of the partisan divide staked out their positions in the fierce fight to come over the nomination of the next justice that could potentially tip the balance of the court from its current 5-4 conservative majority to a liberal one.

The president's comments followed those of Republicans who wasted little time - as news of Scalia's unexpected death spread - arguing that Obama should leave the choice to his successor.

But Obama said he plans to "fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time" and was quick to remind that the day was meant to "remember Justice Scalia's legacy".

"They're about the institution to which Justice Scalia dedicated his professional life, and making sure it continues to function as the beacon of justice that our Founders envisioned," he said in brief remarks.

The sudden death of the conservative icon has catapulted Indian-American judge Sri Srinivasan to the top of succession stakes amid intensified campaigning for the much-awaited presidential polls.

Scalia, the first Italian-American to serve on the court, was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and quickly became the kind of champion to the conservative legal world that his benefactor was in the political realm.

An outspoken opponent of abortion, affirmative action and what he termed the "so-called homosexual agenda", Scalia's intellectual rigour, flamboyant style and eagerness to debate his detractors energised conservative law students, professors and intellectuals who felt outnumbered by liberals in their chosen professions.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott released a statement yesterday 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," Abbott said. 

According to US Marshals Service spokesperson Donna Sellers, Scalia left the party and retired to bed earlier than others but when he did not join all for breakfast, a person involved with the ranch went to his room, where he discovered his body.

A priest was called to administer last rites. A federal official, who asked not to be named, said there was no evidence of foul play and it appeared that Scalia died of natural cause.

His body was taken to El Paso, where it will be escorted back the nation's capital by US marshals and US Supreme Court Police.

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."

Scalia's death has far-reaching implications for the Supreme Court and a round of major cases the justices are set to decide this summer, including Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which challenges the university's affirmative action policy, plus a case that contests Obama's immigration policy and another that reexamines the meaning of "one person, one vote", said former US Republican Charlie Gonzalez.

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