A fierce political battle shaped up over the future of the U.S. Supreme Court on Saturday, with President Donald Trump saying he would quickly name a successor to liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a move that would tip the court further to the right.
"We were put in this position of power and importance to make decisions for the people who so proudly elected us, the most important of which has long been considered to be the selection of United States Supreme Court Justices," Trump said on Twitter. "We have this obligation, without delay!"
Ginsburg, a champion of women's rights who became an icon for American liberals, died at her home in Washington of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, the court said in a statement. She was surrounded by her family, it said.
Ginsburg's death could dramatically alter the ideological balance of the court, which already had a 5-4 conservative majority, by moving it further to the right.
Trump's short list of potential nominees includes two women jurists: Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa, according to a source close to the White House.
"Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature," Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement. "We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her - a tireless and resolute champion of justice."
Trump, seeking re-election on November 3, already has appointed two conservatives to lifetime posts on the court, Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Supreme Court appointments require Senate confirmation, and Trump's fellow Republicans control the chamber, holding 53 seats of the 100 seats.
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he intends to act on any nomination Trump makes.
"President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate," McConnell said.
McConnell's stance is a dramatic reversal from the position he took in a similar situation four years ago, when he refused to act on Democratic President Barack Obama's election-year nomination of centrist appeals court judge Merrick Garland to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. Some Democrats accused McConnell and his fellow Republicans of "stealing" a Supreme Court seat.
McConnell's explanation in a statement on Friday was that in 2016 the Senate and White House were controlled by different parties while now they are both controlled by Republicans.
U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer wrote on Twitter: "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president."
Trump is facing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the election. Informed by reporters after a rally in Minnesota about Ginsburg's death, Trump said: "She led an amazing life. What else can you say? She was an amazing woman." Trump did not mention any potential plans about nominating a replacement for her.
Soon after her death was announced, a small nighttime crowd gathered outside the Supreme Court building to pay tribute to Ginsburg, with some lighting candles and leaving flowers.
Supreme Court justices play an enormous role in shaping U.S. policies on hot-button issues like abortion, LGBT rights, gun rights, religious liberty, the death penalty and presidential powers. For example, the court in 1973 legalized abortion nationwide - a decision that some conservatives are eager to overturn - and in 2015 allowed same-sex marriage across the United States.
Ginsburg, who rose from a working class upbringing in New York City's borough of Brooklyn and prevailed over systematic sexism in the legal ranks to become one of America's best-known jurists, was appointed to the Supreme Court by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993. She provided key votes in landmark rulings securing equal rights for women, expanding gay rights and safeguarding abortion rights.
Ginsburg had experienced a series of health issues including bouts with pancreatic cancer in 2019 and lung cancer in 2018, a previous bout with pancreatic cancer in 2009 and colon cancer in 1999. She disclosed on July 17 that she had a recurrence of cancer.
Ginsburg was the oldest member of the court and the second-longest serving among its current justices behind Clarence Thomas. She was the second woman ever named to the court, after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed 12 years earlier.
The expected Senate confirmation battle over a Trump nominee to replace Ginsburg is likely to be fierce - at a time of social unrest in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic - though Democrats lack the votes to block him unless some Republican senators join them.
Republicans also risk the possibility of Democrats embracing more radical proposals should they win November's election, with some activists on the left suggesting even before Ginsburg's death that they should increase the number of justices on the court in order to counter Trump's appointees.
Trump on September 9 unveiled a list of potential nominees to fill any future Supreme Court vacancies in a move aimed at bolstering support among conservative voters.
Many court-watchers expect Trump to attempt to replace Ginsburg with a woman. One possible contender on Trump's list is Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative judge on the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who was under consideration in 2018 before Trump nominated Kavanaugh.
National Public Radio reported on Friday that Ginsburg before her death dictated a statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera, saying, "My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed."
McConnell's refusal in 2016 to allow the Senate to consider Obama's nominee was an action with little precedent in U.S. history. While McConnell in 2016 said a Supreme Court nomination should not be taken up during an election year, in 2019 he made clear that the Senate would allow Trump to fill an election-year vacancy, drawing Democratic accusations of hypocrisy.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, who would preside over confirmation hearings of her successor on the court, called Ginsburg "a trailblazer who possessed tremendous passion for her causes."
Numerous luminaries paid tribute to Ginsburg including former presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.
Trump, who as a presidential candidate in 2016 called on Ginsburg to resign after she criticized him in media interviews, will get a chance to reshape the court like no other president since Ronald Reagan, who made three appointments during his eight years in office in the 1980s, moving the court to the right.
Trump and McConnell have made moving the federal judiciary to the right a top priority. Another Trump appointment would give the Supreme Court a 6-3 conservative majority, meaning that for the liberal justices to prevail in any case they would need to have two of the conservatives join them.
Some liberal activists had urged Ginsburg to step down early in Obama's second term to allow him to appoint a younger liberal to replace her who could serve decades on the court.
Even with a conservative majority on the court, Trump came out on the losing end of several key rulings in June and July 2020, including decisions rejecting his claim of absolute presidential immunity from criminal investigation. With Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts playing a key role, the court also ruled against Trump in expanding LGBT rights, invalidating a restrictive Louisiana abortion law and blocking him from rescinding an immigration program created by Obama.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to appoint justices who would overturn the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion nationwide.
Recent Supreme Court confirmations have taken at least two months from the day the nomination was announced.
A private interment service for Ginsburg will be held at Arlington National Cemetery, the court said, but did not specify a date.