Replacing Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court: Five Things You Should Know

Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death on February 13th — and the battle to replace him — has become one of the most critical political issues in the United States this year. Here our experts explain what you need to know.

1. Justice Scalia’s passing removes the Republicans’ slender majority in the Supreme Court

A total of nine judges sit in the Supreme Court. The passing of conservative Justice Scalia means there are now four remaining conservative judges and four liberals.

2. The Supreme Court has serious political power

The Supreme Court will rule on numerous significant issues before the end of Barack Obama’s term in office, including cases pertaining to affirmative action and abortion rights. It was also due to rule on the Obama administration’s executive actions on immigration and climate change (having already temporarily blocked implementation of the Clean Power Plan).

3. The Court can still make rulings with an empty seat.

Since the Supreme Court only considers cases that have been previously decided by lower courts, tie decisions revert to the ruling of the lower court without setting a national precedent. A 4–4 deadlock on the Supreme Court means that Obama’s executive actions on climate change and immigration will be upheld, preserving two major elements of Obama’s legacy at least until the end of his term.

4. Supreme Court justices are appointed to lifetime terms.

This is why the next appointment is so important — another liberal or conservative justice could have extremely long-term consequences (and is thus is one of the most important actions a president takes).

5. Republicans are trying desperately to stop Obama from appointing a successor before the end of his term

The Republicans immediately said that they would block any nomination, which flies in the face of precedent. In the face of criticism, they have backed down to saying that they might hold hearings but that they’re extremely unlikely to confirm any Obama nomination. Whether or not they are successful, the next US President will likely have the opportunity to nominate further justices — three of the eight remaining justices are over the age of 70.

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