DALLAS, Texas (CN) - Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead Saturday in West Texas, thrusting the balance of the narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court into the election year debate.
Scalia, 79, appears to have died in his sleep of natural causes at the Cibola Creek Ranch resort on Friday night. He attended a private party with 40 people before going to bed and his body was found in the morning when he did not appear for breakfast.
Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, Scalia was the longest-serving current justice on the Supreme Court. He was a fierce proponent of the "originalism" principle of constitutional interpretation - that the meaning of the Constitution's text is fixed to when it was enacted and cannot be changed unless amended.
This interpretation frequently aligned Scalia with the conservative wing of the court, alongside Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Clarence Thomas.
Scalia most recently made headlines when he wrote a scathing dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges last year, blasting the majority as "the furthest imaginable extension" of the court "doing whatever it wants" in legalizing gay marriage. He accused the majority of rewriting the Constitution rather than doing their job of interpreting it.
Scalia may be best known for writing the majority opinion in Bush v. Gore, which decided the winner of the 2000 presidential election. He wrote that Florida voters' equal protection rights would be violated if a halted recount continued due to different recount standards in different counties.
In the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, Scalia's argued that the original meaning of the Constitution was clear when it came to the possession of guns, and that its message should be upheld. He did, however, distinguish between handguns, and advanced military weapons, such as M-16s and other powerful assault rifles.
"We therefore read Miller to say only that the Second Amendment does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, such as short-barreled shotguns," Scalia wrote.
Throughout his tenure on the court, Scalia was also known for his opposition to gay and lesbian rights, as well as his sarcasm and fiery rebuttal of his fellow justices.
"Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state," Scalia told the American Enterprise Institute in 2012.
Scalia's career was closely tied to several of the most significant conservative politicians of the past 50 years, including Richard Nixon, Dick Cheney, Ronald Reagan, and many others.
After graduating from Harvard Law School and spending six years at a Cleveland law firm, he worked as a law school professor at the University of Virginia.
He then served in the administrations of president Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, eventually becoming assistant attorney general.
President Reagan appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, before later nominating him to the Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Roberts called Scalia's death "a great loss" to the court.
"He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by colleagues," Roberts said in a statement. "His passing is a great loss to the court and the country he so loyally served. We extend out deepest condolences to his wife Maureen and his family."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he prays Scalia's successor "will take his place as a champion for the written Constitution and the rule of law," calling Scalia a "man of God, patriot, and an unwavering defender" of the Constitution.
"He was the solid rock who turned away so many attempts to depart from and distort the Constitution," Abbott said in a statement. "His fierce loyalty to the Constitution set an unmatched example, not just for judges and lawyers, but for all Americans."
Republican lawmakers quickly rejected the idea that President Barack Obama should nominate Scalia's replacement before he leaves office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the vacancy should not be filled until a new president is elected.
"The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice," McConnell said in a statement.
U.S. District Judge Fred Biery told the San Antonio Express-News, "My reaction is, it's very unfortunate. It's unfortunate with any death, and politically in the presidential cycle we're in, my educated guess is nothing will happen before the next president is elected."
President Obama is unlikely to heed the call of the political opponents who have fought him for eight years.
"I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time," he said on Saturday.
But with only 46 Democrats in the Senate, Obama faces a steep road to get a nominee confirmed before November. And in a bitterly polarized nation, it's even less likely that he could get the 60 votes he would need in the Senate to stop a Republican filibuster.