The Big Conversation

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away unexpectedly over the weekend in West Texas, an event that is having an immediate impact on the court, the U.S. Senate and the 2016 presidential race as well.

Scalia had carved out a reputation in his nearly 30 years on the Supreme Court as quite possibly the most conservative member of the court. So the question of whether Barack Obama could successfully nominate a successor in the middle of a polarizing presidential election emerged front and center in the immediate aftermath of news of Scalia’s death.

Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Tribune’s Terri Langford and Jordan Rudner that the odds of an Obama appointee making it to the court are “slim to none.”

"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."

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

The Tribune’s Patrick Svitek reported that GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz is already moving quickly to make the future of the court a campaign issue.

Svitek wrote, “The U.S. senator from Texas is vowing to put up a fight if President Barack Obama tries to nominate a replacement, and Cruz is seeking to inject even more drama in to the race for the White House, declaring it a ‘referendum on the Supreme Court.’"

Partisans on the other side of the aisle were similarly rallying their forces this weekend.

The Tribune’s Jamie Lovegrove reported that Obama’s ability to nominate a successor to Scalia was raised at a Hillary Clinton campaign event in Houston on Sunday.

Scalia’s “sad passing now highlights the stakes that we are fighting for and the absolute loss that we will face if a Republican is victorious,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, told the Tribune. “We know now that Republicans will have no fairness in any selection process, they will simply be seeking someone who will do everything they can to undermine the rights of the vulnerable.”

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Scalia’s death also has a big impact on the court’s remaining term, which has several important cases coming out of Texas pending.

Republican officeholders in Texas have counted on the conservative Scalia “over and over in winning and losing cases that involved redistricting, environmental regulation, same-sex marriage, college admissions — even the elevation of a Texas governor to the White House.

“He might have been at their side in four Texas cases now pending before the court on legal questions about undocumented immigrants, the longstanding one-person-one-vote principle in election law, a challenge to the state’s regulation of abortion facilities and, once again, on the consideration of race in college admissions.”

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.

Trib Must Reads

In Lubbock Race, House Member Battles Former Colleague, by Johnathan Silver — Five years ago, they were both embarking on their first legislative sessions in the Texas House. Now, Republicans John Frullo and Jim Landtroop are primary opponents.

Outspoken Candidates Could Revive Rancor on Education Board, by Kiah Collier — he candidates running for the powerful State Board of Education include a Republican who once claimed President Obama used to be a prostitute and a Democrat who described herself as a “MeXicana Empowerment Specialist."

Analysis: A Field Guide to the 2016 Texas Primaries, by Ross Ramsey — Early voting starts Tuesday in Texas, and the races for the presidential nominations are not the only contests on the ballot. Here are the most competitive contests for state and federal seats on the state ballot.

Congressional Race Could Pit Lubbock Against Abilene, by Abby Livingston — The eight-candidate race to succeed U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, in Texas’ 19th Congressional District could morph into a fight between two cities well in advance of the 2021 redistricting process.

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Undocumented Student's Arrest a Cautionary Tale, by Nicole Cobler — Almost seven years ago, former University of Texas student Raul Zamora’s broken taillight landed him in the South Texas Detention Facility in Pearsall on the brink of deportation. This story is part of our "Bordering on Insecurity" series.

Rep. Ron Reynolds Fending Off Conviction, Challengers, by Terri Langford — He's appealing a a five-count barratry conviction and facing a field of strong Democratic primary challengers, and yet state Rep. Ron Reynolds is surprisingly upbeat about his chances to keep his seat and his law license.

Cruz is Target of Fierce Attacks at GOP Debate, by Abby Livingston — Real estate magnate Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio savaged U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz to his face on national television Saturday night, with each going so far as to accuse him of lying.

No State Help for Crystal City Council Meltdown, by Jim Malewitz — After most of its elected officials were arrested, questions swirled about whether — and how — Crystal City's government can function in the coming months. This much is clear, experts agree: The city must wade through the mess largely on its own.

The Day Ahead

•    State and federal offices are closed today to observe Presidents’ Day.

•    John Lujan will be sworn in as state representative for San Antonio's House District 118 at 10:30 a.m. in the House Chamber at the Capitol.

•    Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign will have state Sen. Kirk Watson open its Austin office at 9 a.m. In San Antonio, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro and Councilman Alan Warrick will campaign for Clinton at the George Gervin Youth Center at 1:15 p.m.

Elsewhere

Cibolo Creek Ranch owner recalls Scalia’s last hours in Texas, San Antonio Express-News

Sanders riding momentum as Texas voting begins, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The eyes of Texas are upon the pope, Austin American-Statesman

How Johnny Manziel's rise to Heisman, NFL has led to sudden fall, Houston Chronicle

Obama's Supreme Court short list, Politico

The death of Antonin Scalia: Chaos, confusion and conflicting reports, The Washington Post

4 Texas universities recognized for research work, but are they ‘Tier One’?, The Dallas Morning News

Republicans to randomly assign UH debate tickets, Houston Chronicle

CD23: Hurd faces idiosyncratic newcomer, El Paso Times

Green vs. Green: State Supreme Court GOP race a study in contrasts, Austin American-Statesman

Quote to Note

“I’m here to take back the Republican Party. Call me a Trojan horse.”

William Hart, who’s challenging U.S. Rep. Will Hurd in Congressional District 23, in an interview saying that he will be a different type of Republican if elected

Today in TribTalk

Texas title insurance market should be freed from over-regulation, by Brooke Rollins and Bill Hammond — No matter what company they choose, homeowners and businesses seeking to protect their investment in the purchase of land from a faulty title are forced to accept coverages and prices mandated by the Texas Department of Insurance — which often leads to some of the highest title insurance rates in the nation

Abortion funds and activists are mobilizing for marginalized Texans, by Ana Rodriguez — As a leader at an abortion fund in Texas, I see firsthand the consequences of restrictive anti-abortion laws — consequences that too often fall on people of color, non-english speakers, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ people and those who are struggling financially.

News From Home

•    The Tribune's Jay Root and KUT's Ben Philpott tell you everything you need to know about the South Carolina primaries on this week's The Ticket. They will explain who's voting, who's still running and what could happen on each party's election night. Democratic strategist Colin Strother updates everyone on what's happening in Texas as Super Tuesday gets closer.

Trib Events for the Calendar

•    A Conversation with Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. and Rep. Jose Manuel Lozano on Feb. 25 at Texas A&M University-Kingsville

•    Live Post-Primary TribCast on March 2 at the Austin Club

•    Protecting Houston Before the Next Big Storm on March 3 at San Jacinto College Maritime Technology and Training Center in La Porte.

•    A Conversation with Sid Miller, Texas Agriculture Commissioner on March 10 at the Austin Club

•    A Conversation with Sen. Carlos Uresti and Rep. Poncho Nevárez on April 13 at Sul Ross State University in Alpine

•    A Symposium on the Texas Economy on April 29 at the University of Houston