U.S. Supreme Court Justice Scalia Dies at 79

Appointed by Reagan, Scalia was a constitutional originalist considered the leader of the U.S. top court's conservative wing.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia testifies before a House Judiciary Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this file photo taken May 20, 2010.

REUTERS - Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, has died, setting up a major political showdown between President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled Senate over who will replace him just months before a presidential election. 

"On behalf of the court and retired justices, I am saddened to report that our colleague Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away," Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement, calling Scalia an "extraordinary individual and jurist." 

Scalia's death was first reported by the San Antonio News-Express, who said he had apparently died of natural causes in his sleep while visiting a luxury resort in West Texas. A source who spoke to CNN said that Scalia told a friend he was not feeling well beforehand.

The New Jersey-born judge was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1986 was considered the head of the U.S. top court's conservative wing, who believed in an originalist reading of the constitution and a formalistic so-called "textual" interpretation of the law.  

His death comes as the court is set to hear its first major abortion case in nearly 10 years, and ahead of key cases on voting rights, affirmative action and immigration.

With a 5-to-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, Obama will face a stiff battle to win confirmation of a nominee to replace Scalia, with Republicans likely to delay in the hope that one of their own wins the November election. But if Obama does successfully nominate a replacement before his term ends in January, it could tilt the court to the left for the first time in decades.

Scalia was the dissenting voice when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law that would allow American citizens born in Jerusalem to have Israel listed as their birthplace on passports. "The Jerusalem passport law has nothing to do with recognition," Scalia said at the time, taking the relatively rare step of reading his dissenting opinion from the bench.

He visited Israel in 2006, giving a talk at Tel Aviv University.

Race to replacement

"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," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who currently controls if and when the Senate would vote on a nominee.

But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said Obama should send the Senate a nominee "right away."

The question of replacing Scalia is likely to come up when six of the Republican White House hopefuls participate in a televised debate Saturday evening in South Carolina, which holds its Republican nominating contest on Feb. 20.

Obama's first two appointments to the court, liberals Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010, both experienced relatively smooth confirmation hearings in the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats.

This nomination will be different, with Republicans now in charge of the Senate and keen to exert their influence over the process. Obama is likely to be forced into picking a moderate with little or no history of advocating for liberal causes.

Other factors the White House is likely to consider is whether to nominate a woman or a member of a minority group, or someone who fits into both categories.

Among those mentioned within legal circles as potential nominees are Sri Srinivasan, an Indian-American judge who has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since May 2013, and Jacqueline Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American who has been a judge on the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since May 2012.

Paul Watford, a black judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who was appointed in May 2012, and Jane Kelly, a white woman and former public defender who has served on the St. Louis, Missouri-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since April 2013, also have been touted as possible nominees.