Justice Antonin Scalia's death sends Congress into an election season frenzy

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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was the intellectual anchor of the court's conservative wing | Photo by Eric Bridiers/United States Mission Geneva

In the wake of a Supreme Court Justice's death, the United States is in a political battle over choosing his replacement.

Barely hours after Justice Antonin Scalia's death was announced on Saturday, Feb. 13, social media exploded with arguments over who has the right to nominate his replacement.

“There is a great deal more drama with the passing of Justice Scalia than with most Supreme Court Justices,” said Rogers Smith, the associate dean for social sciences and a professor of political science. He said there are two reasons for this dramatic response: Scalia was still on the bench at the time of his sudden passing and, being that “it is very closely divided bench in an election year," the circumstances were ripe for political strife. 

Social media exacerbates and allows for these immediate hot takes on national events, creating an “instant expression of passionate reactions, often ill-considered reactions,” Smith said.

Despite President Barack Obama's constitutional authority to appoint Supreme Court justices, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced after Scalia's death that his party would oppose any nominee the president named. The Senate must approve Obama's nominee by a majority vote in order for it to be confirmed. 

The Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Senate and, by virtue of controlling the Judiciary Committee, can block any nominee from even being given a hearing. 

“Many senators feel that they will get a better court, one that is more responsive to the recently expressed will of the people, if they don’t approve President Obama’s nominee, but wait for a nominee from the next president,” Smith said. “That’s an exercise of their political judgment, it’s within their power to do that.”

As some Republican senators have pointed out, Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, urged the same "delay" tactics while he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a 1992 speech on the floor of the Senate, Biden said, "Once the political season is under way, action on a Supreme Court nomination must be put off until after the election campaign is over," the same viewpoint he now opposes. 

Scalia’s successor, it appears, will be determined much like a Scalia jurisprudential opinion: through fiery, impassioned discourse. 

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