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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Found Dead in West Texas

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, was found dead of apparent natural causes Saturday morning at the Cibolo Creek Ranch resort near Marfa, a Presidio County official confirmed.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the investiture ceremony at the Texas House on November 11, 2013.

Editor's note: This story is updated throughout.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, was found dead of apparent natural causes Saturday morning at the Cibolo Creek Ranch resort near Marfa, Presidio County officials confirmed. 

Presidio County Judge Cinderella Guevara pronounced Scalia dead after 1 p.m., Justice of the Peace David Beebe told The Texas Tribune.

Scalia, appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, was found in his room at the Cibolo Creek Ranch after he did not appear for breakfast, the San Antonio Express-News reported

The longest-serving justice on the court, Scalia was known for his conservative judicial philosophy. His death will have a major impact on the nation's highest court, which now has four justices appointed by Democratic presidents and four appointed by Republicans.

Because of the contentious nature of the cases heard by the Supreme Court, the nomination of prospective justices is highly politicized. Nominees go through a two-step process to earn their spot on the court: They must be appointed by the president and then confirmed by the U.S. Senate, whose majority is currently held by the GOP.

On Saturday evening, Obama said he fully intends to put forward a nominee in the coming weeks to succeed Scalia.

With more than a year to go left in his term, Obama said he is confident he has enough time to fulfill his "constitutional responsibility" to make an appointment. The Senate must also "fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely hearing," he said.

Supreme Court justice nominations are "bigger than any one party," Obama added.

One candidate reported to be on the shortlist, Judge Sri Srinivasan of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, was appointed to that court by unanimous Senate vote in 2013.

The prospects for an Obama appointee being confirmed before his term ends in January are slim to none, according to Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Obama might nominate somebody, but the odds of that vacancy being filled before next year approach zero," Levinson said. "The Republican Party won’t accept anybody who would be nominated by Obama."

"They’re going to have to get used to being an eight-person court for at least the next year," he added.

Obama successfully appointed two current justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, during his first term in office, when the Senate had a Democratic majority.

Until the vacancy on the court is filled, the Supreme Court will continue to hear cases as an eight-member body. Cases that result in 4-4 votes automatically revert to the ruling of the lower court that had most recently heard them. The justices may choose to “push over” cases that they have already accepted until after a ninth member can be confirmed.

The justices had already heard two controversial Texas-centered cases this term: Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin, regarding the college's affirmative action policies, and Evenwel v. Abbott, about the “one person, one vote” principle by which state legislative districts are determined. The Supreme Court has not issued a ruling on either case.

The Supreme Court accepted two additional Texas cases — one focused on immigration, the other on abortion — but had not yet heard oral arguments in either one.

In Texas v. United States, lawyers for the state are challenging a controversial executive order, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, which would shield more than 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation proceedings.

In the abortion case, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedtabortion providers are challenging House Bill 2, the state’s 2013 abortion law. If the Supreme Court rules that HB2 is constitutional, it could result in the shuttering of about half the state’s 19 remaining abortion clinics.

It didn’t take long after Scalia's death for politics to come into view. Within an hour of the first news reports, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a leading Republican candidate for president, tweeted that he believed the justice should not be replaced until President Obama is out of office.

“Justice Scalia was an American hero,” Cruz tweeted. “We owe it to him, & the Nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next President names his replacement.”

Scalia was the second-oldest justice behind Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is 82. Ginsburg’s age and her health have been the frequent focus of Democrats, who had urged her to retire while Obama is still in office.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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