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Death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia rocks US political scene

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has sent shock waves through the US political establishment. Both parties are now gearing up for a confirmation battle in the Senate in an acrimonious election year.

President Barack Obama has made clear that he intends to nominate a Supreme Court successor to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in his sleep at the age of 79 on Saturday.

But it remains to be seen whether any nominee can win confirmation in the Senate, where conservative Republicans hold a 54-46 majority.

Without Scalia the court loses its arch conservative, with the Republican-leaning judges losing their 5-4 advantage. An Obama appointee would likely give the court a liberal majority, which would impact all cases involving social issues, such as abortion rights and discrimination, as well as consitutional issues, such as gun control and health care.

US-Richter Antonin Scalia ist gestorben

The late Justice Antonin Scalia

After Obama praised Scalia as "one of the towering legal figures of our time," he nonetheless vowed to fulfill his constitutional responsibility to name a successor and called on the Senate to do the same.

"I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time. There will be plenty of time for me to do so, and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote," he said. "These are responsibilities that I take seriously, as should everyone. They are bigger than any one party. They are about our democracy."

Republicans vow to block

But the Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, wasted no time brushing aside the president's plans.

"The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice," McConnell said in a statement. "Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president."

USA Baltimore Besuch Obama bei Islamic Society Moschee

President Barack Obama

But Obama has a folder full of potential nominees and is expected to act swiftly. What is unclear is the path he will take. He could nominate a demonstrably liberal candidate or go with a more moderate one.

The more liberal candidate is sure to be rejected by the Senate, but could be used as grist for the Democrats to inflame their base as they seek to hold on to the White House and win back the chamber.

To some extent, though, the same could be said for Republicans as they fight to hold on to their majority.

Obama's options

A more moderate left-of-center candidate could possibly win confirmation if Obama can peel off four Republican senators, which is possible.

Mitch McConnell

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell

This year's Senate election is a difficult one for Republicans. They have 24 seats to defend, including six in battleground states that Obama won twice.

Those senators could be at risk of losing re-election if they rejected a moderate Supreme Court nominee.

Scalia's death occurred just hours before the latest Republican presidential debate, where there was virtual unanimity on what the Senate needed to do. Donald Trump, the former reality TV show host and current conservative frontrunner, summed it up succinctly.

"It's up to Mitch McConnell and everyone else to stop it," Trump said. "It's called delay, delay, delay."

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