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US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Dead at 79

Scalia's death could potentially tip the balance of the highest court in the land from its current 5-4 conservative majority to a liberal one.

Justice Antonin Scalia, a towering conservative voice on the US Supreme Court, has died at the age of 79, triggering a political showdown over his succession in the run-up to the presidential election.

President Barack Obama ordered flags to fly at half-staff across the United States until the long-serving justice, first appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, is laid to rest.

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Scalia's death after three decades on the Supreme Court bench has profound ramifications, and could potentially tip the balance of the highest court in the land from its current 5-4 conservative majority to a liberal one.

Obama led the chorus of tributes pouring in for the stalwart conservative, who died in his sleep at a private residence in the Big Bend area of West Texas, according to the US Marshals Service.

"For almost 30 years, Justice Antonin Scalia was a larger than life presence on the bench, a brilliant legal mind with an energetic style," Obama told reporters in Rancho Mirage, California.

"Tonight we honor his extraordinary service to our nation and remember one of the towering legal figures of our time."

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Obama also spoke with Scalia's son Eugene "to pass along condolences to the entire Scalia family," the White House said.

But the US leader also fired the first shot in a tense battle over Scalia's succession.

Obama said he fully intended to nominate a successor, in accordance with his "constitutional responsibilities," after leading Republicans -- including all six conservative White House contenders -- argued that the outgoing president should not be allowed to fill Scalia's vacant seat.

He called for the Republican-controlled Senate to give his nominee a "fair hearing and a timely vote."

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"These are responsibilities that I take seriously as should everyone," Obama said. "They're bigger than any one party. They are about our democracy."

The president nominates a Supreme Court candidate, who requires Senate approval before taking up the lifetime post.

For three decades, Scalia's outsized personality gave voice to the values of conservative America on the Supreme Court bench, on matters of religion, family, patriotism and law enforcement.

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A staunch defender of gun rights and the death penalty, the Roman Catholic justice was also openly opposed to abortion, gay marriage and affirmative action.

The Supreme Court's conservative majority had recently stalled key efforts by Obama's administration on climate change and immigration, and replacing Scalia with a Democratic appointee could significantly alter the court balance.

Republicans immediately drew battles lines over the implications of the vacancy.

"The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice," said Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president."

Senator Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also called for a delay.

A History Of Supreme Court Controversy: Photos

"It's been standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during a presidential election year," he claimed.

This is incorrect, as Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan nominee, was confirmed by the senate in 1988, an election year.

The Republican calls met with a sharp rebuttal from the Democratic camp.

McConnell's Democratic counterpart Harry Reid pressed for Obama to send a nominee to the Senate "right away," stressing that a yearlong vacancy -- raising the prospect of 4 to 4 splits on major issues -- would be "unprecedented."

Why Supreme Court Justices Serve For Life

"Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate's most essential Constitutional responsibilities," Reid said.

Democratic White House hopeful Hillary Clinton said Republicans calling for a delay "dishonor our Constitution."

The often belligerent Scalia, the first Italian-American to serve on the Supreme Court, was known for his brash demeanor and sharp tongue. His biting opinions made him a conservative hero, and gave his liberal foes dyspepsia.

"War is war and it has never been the case that when you capture a combatant, you have to give them a jury trial in your civil courts," he once said, referring to prisoners at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay. "It's a crazy idea to me."

Scalia championed originalism, a theory that views the meaning of the Constitution as fixed at the time it was ratified in 1788. In this view, the validity of the death penalty and the right to bear arms is unquestionable.

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Scalia's affable personality and portly physique contrasted with his sometimes radical ideas -- and he was often the only justice on the otherwise stern bench to trigger a laugh in highly technical debates.

On the debate stage in South Carolina Saturday night, all six Republican presidential contenders bowed their heads in silence to honor the late justice -- and united to oppose Obama nominating his successor.

Senator Marco Rubio warned Obama would seek to "ram down our throat a liberal justice."

"This is a tremendous blow to conservatism," Republican frontrunner Donald Trump warned. He said he fully expects Obama to nominate a justice -- and said it was up to Senate Republicans to "delay, delay, delay."

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today (April 28) about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. Now that the two-and-a-half-hour session has ended, the nine justices are formulating their thoughts and are expected to release a decision in June. The rulings on the four cases heard during today's arguments will have a monumental impact on the laws regarding same-sex marriage in the United States. The justices will decide whether states can ban same-sex marriage. The court will also rule on whether states need to

recognize same-sex marriages

lawfully officiated in other states or countries. "There are literally hundreds and hundreds of rights under state and federal law that are affected by whether you can marry or not," said Jeffrey Trachtman, a partner at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, a law firm with offices in New York City, Silicon Valley and Paris. "Insurance, Social Security, eligibility for certain kinds of housing — the list just goes on and on." [

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] Here are six ways the Supreme Court's ruling could affect the lives of same-sex couples living in the United States.

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If you're not married, it's generally more complicated to adopt a child, Trachtman told Live Science. "Unmarried couples can sometimes adopt together," Trachtman said. "But it's just easier [if you're married]. You're presumed to have a more stable home." In fact, one of the Supreme Court cases involves two women who want to get married, in part because Michigan laws do not allow unmarried couples to jointly adopt children, according to

SCOTUSblog

, a blog that follows Supreme Court cases. April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, two women who have lived together for 10 years and who own a home together, have three adopted children, according to SCOTUSblog. Because they can't get married in Michigan, and thus cannot jointly adopt their three children, DeBoer has adopted one child and Rowse has adopted the other two. But the women cannot share their

health insurance

with their nonadopted children. And, if one woman dies, the other would not get automatic custody of the nonadopted children, according to SCOTUSblog. Having marriage rights "certainly makes it easier to adopt, and easier to be considered as a second parent for your spouse's adopted child," Trachtman said.

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Marriage gives U.S. citizens the right to sponsor their foreign spouse for immigration status, including getting a green card. Following a

2013 Supreme Court decision

, the Obama administration began allowing married same-sex couples the right to sponsor a foreign spouse, Trachtman said. But many same-sex couples don't qualify for this legal option because they can't get married in their home states. "People who can already get married now have that treatment under the federal immigration laws," Trachtman said. "But people who can't get married still can't take advantage of that." [

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]

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Nobody likes getting sick on vacation, but it can be especially dangerous for gay couples if they're traveling in a state that doesn't recognize

same-sex marriage

. "Let's say that somebody has to go to the hospital, and [the hospital doesn't] treat you as a spouse for purposes of making health care decisions or access for visits," Trachtman said. It's now legal for same-sex couples to get married in 37 out of 50 states, and the District of Columbia. But the remaining 13 states could be a problem for same-sex couples, even if they are legally married in their home states, Trachtman said. Currently, some couples work around this by giving their partners powers of attorney, so that the partner will be able to make decisions for them in case there's a crisis, Trachtman said. The Supreme Court could simplify this interstate problem by legalizing same-sex marriage or by asking all states to recognize these unions, even if they're not legal there, he added.

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Married people have a slew of benefits; they can file joint state and federal taxes, continue to receive their deceased spouse's Social Security payments through a program called survivor benefits, and take part in their spouse's work-sponsored health insurance plans. "Many private employers and businesses use marital status for a basis for whether they get certain kinds of benefits," Trachtman said. "It could be putting people on health insurance, or something as silly as a married discount for a health club."

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Federal tax laws have a big say in inheritance. For someone in a married couple, "your spouse inherits everything without paying any taxes," Trachtman said. "You only pay an inheritance tax when the second spouse dies." The tax is required if a couple is not married, he said. This issue was argued in the 2013 Supreme Court case

U.S. v. Windsor

, which involved two New York women who had married in Toronto, Canada, in 2007. After one of them died in 2009, the other was required to pay more than $360,000 in federal estate taxes because the Internal Revenue Service did not recognize their marriage. In

U.S. v. Windsor

, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited lawfully married same-sex couples from accessing the federal benefits afforded to opposite-sex married couples and their families. The new ruling could make same-sex unions legal across the country so that married couples wouldn't have to worry about paying an inheritance tax. Also, state laws usually give spouses the automatic right to make

burial decisions

— for instance, whether to bury or cremate a person's remains. Spouses can also typically determine where to bury their husbands or wives. "If they're not married, the family can overrule them," Trachtman said. "And they'll have no say even if they were together for 20 years."

Marriage's Bumpy History

Financial benefits and practicalities aside, marriage can also deliver

equal dignity

in a community, Trachtman said. Marriage "has a lot of power and respect in a lot of communities, and to not be able to do that is sort of sending a signal that their relationships are second class," Trachtman said. Children may also be aware of that dignity (or the lack of it), especially if their friends' parents are married, he added. "They feel bad that their family is not considered as good as other families," Trachtman said. Original article on

Live Science

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