GREENVILLE, S.C. (Christian Examiner) – The leading Republican candidates for president Saturday night staunchly opposed allowing President Obama to pick a replacement for Antonin Scalia, a towering conservative on the Supreme Court whose death earlier in the day shocked the nation's capital and ensured that the presidential race will be dominated by social issues.
Scalia, 79, was nominated by President Reagan and quickly became a hero of the Right, voting in the minority once to overturn Roe v. Wade and later in the minority to uphold state constitutional marriage amendments. He voted in the majority in several cases affirming religious liberty. But it was his sharp intellect, staunch defense of an originalist interpretation of the Constitution, and blunt opinions that truly won conservative supporters.
Traditionally in modern history, Supreme Court justices plan their retirements so they are replaced by a president of the same party that nominated them. Deaths, like that of Scalia's, give presidents the chance to dramatically switch the balance of the court. Scalia was part of a bloc of conservatives that numbered at least four and often five.
President Obama said Saturday night that he intended to name a replacement, but participants in the Republican debate said the seat should be filled by the next president.
"I do not believe the president should appoint someone," said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. "And it's not unprecedented. In fact, it has been over 80 years since a lame duck president has appointed a Supreme Court justice. And it remind us of ... how important this election is. Someone on this stage will get to choose the balance of the Supreme Court, and it will begin by filling this vacancy that's there now. And we need to put people on the bench that understand that the Constitution is not a living and breathing document. It is to be interpreted as originally meant."
Businessman Donald Trump urged the Senate to block any nomination by Obama.
"I think it's up to (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell, and everybody else to stop it. It's called delay, delay, delay," Trump said.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz also mentioned "80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year."
"We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will strike down every restriction on abortion adopted by the states," Cruz said. "We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will reverse the Heller decision, one of Justice Scalia's seminal decisions that upheld the Second Amendment right to keep and to bear arms. We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that would undermine the religious liberty of millions of Americans. ... The Senate needs to stand strong and say, 'We're not going to give up the U.S. Supreme Court for a generation by allowing Barack Obama to make one more liberal appointee.'"
No candidate on stage said the Senate should vote on Obama's nominee.
Republicans hold 54 seats in the 100-member chamber, and do have the power – if they remain united – to block any Obama nominee.
McConnell indicated Saturday night that was his intent, saying in a statement, "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."
Two of the leading religious liberty organizations also spoke out.
Alan Sears, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement that "it is unlikely that a new justice will be installed prior to the election of our next president."
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, urged the Senate to block any Obama nominee.
"With the passing of Justice Scalia, the future of the High Court and the future of America is hanging in the balance," Staver said. "The Senate must not confirm any nominee to the Supreme Court from President Obama. The Senate must hold off any confirmation until the next President is seated.
"Unfortunately, the presidential debates have been more theater and less substance about the real issues surrounding the Supreme Court," Staver continued. "The election of the next President has now taken on even greater importance. The future of the Supreme Court and America now depends on the Senate blocking any nominee by President Obama and the people electing the right person to occupy the White House."