WASHINGTON • The longest-serving member of the US Supreme Court has died, setting up a major political showdown between President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled Senate over who will replace Mr Antonin Scalia, just months before a presidential election.
Mr Obama ordered flags to fly at half-staff across the United States until the justice, first appointed by then president Ronald Reagan in 1986, is laid to rest. Mr Scalia was 79.
His death last Saturday 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.
Mr 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.
"For almost 30 years, Justice Antonin Scalia was a larger-than-life presence on the bench, a brilliant legal mind with an energetic style," Mr Obama told reporters in Rancho Mirage, California.
LARGER THAN LIFE
For almost 30 years, Justice Antonin Scalia was a larger-than-life presence on the bench, a brilliant legal mind with an energetic style.
MR BARACK OBAMA, US President.
But the US leader also fired the first shot in a tense battle over Mr Scalia's succession.
Mr Obama indicated that he intends to send a choice to the Senate in the coming weeks. It is said that the possibilities include two prominent Asian-American judges: Indian-American Sri Srinivasan and Vietnamese-American Jacqueline Nguyen.
Leading Republicans have argued that the outgoing President should not be allowed to fill the vacant seat.
Mr Obama called for the Republican-controlled Senate to give his nominee a "fair hearing and a timely vote". "These are responsibilities that I take seriously, as should everyone," he 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.
Mr Scalia's outsized personality had given voice to the values of conservative America on the Supreme Court bench, on matters of religion, family, patriotism and law enforcement. A defender of gun rights and the death penalty, the Roman Catholic justice was also openly opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
The Supreme Court's conservative majority recently stalled key efforts by Mr Obama's administration on climate change and immigration, and replacing Mr Scalia with a Democratic appointee could significantly alter the court balance.
Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: "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."
Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also called for a delay.
But Mr McConnell's Democratic counterpart Harry Reid pressed for Mr Obama to send a nominee to the Senate "right away", stressing that a year-long vacancy - raising the prospect of 4-4 splits on major issues - would be "unprecedented".
Democratic White House hopeful Hillary Clinton said Republicans calling for a delay "dishonour our Constitution".
On the debate stage in South Carolina last Saturday night, all six Republican presidential contenders united to oppose Mr Obama nominating a successor to Mr Scalia.
Republican front runner Donald Trump said it was up to Senate Republicans to "delay, delay, delay".
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS