Thousands at funeral for Scalia, whose death roiled US politics

Former US vice-president Dick Cheney (front, left) hugs former US Solicitor-General Theodore Olson (right) as they and Justice Clarence Thomas (top right) take their seats.
Former US vice-president Dick Cheney (front, left) hugs former US Solicitor-General Theodore Olson (right) as they and Justice Clarence Thomas (top right) take their seats.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Solemn prayers were said for Justice Antonin Scalia at a funeral mass Saturday as thousands paid their respects to the conservative jurist whose sudden death has ignited a battle over his successor on the US Supreme Court.

Vice-President Joseph Biden led a distinguished group of officials, dignitaries and family friends in attendance at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Pope Francis had celebrated a mass in September.

Scalia was a devout and tradition-bound Catholic, and Cardinal Donald Wuerll, the archbishop of Washington, said that he had expressed a desire for "a simple parish family mass".

Yet the pews were filled with thousands of mourners in the vast Romanesque-Byzantine basilica, the largest Catholic church in North America.

The mass was led by one of the justice's nine children, the Reverend Paul Scalia, a priest in nearby Arlington, Virginia. Four other sons served as pallbearers.

While the late justice preferred traditional Latin masses, his own was mostly in English.

In words that to many seemed to refer to his father, Paul Scalia said: "We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more, a man loved by many, scorned by others, a man known for great controversy, and for great compassion."

But he then added, "That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth."

It was because of Jesus, he went on, that "in confidence we commend Antonin Scalia to the mercy of God."

Scalia's eight fellow justices - including Clarence Thomas, who offered a Bible reading - several Cabinet secretaries and many members of Congress were in attendance, as was former vice-president Dick Cheney and Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the papal nuncio to the United States.

Senator Ted Cruz, the conservative Southern Baptist who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, broke away from the campaign trail to attend, CNN reported.

A private burial was to follow.

The President and First Lady Michelle Obama were not present on Saturday, an absence sharply criticised by some Republicans.

The Obamas had paid their respects on Friday when the flag-draped casket of the 79-year-old justice lay in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. A spokesman said the President did not want his presence at the basilica to be a distraction.

While Obama and Scalia had deep political differences, the President had paid homage to the undeniable legal influence Scalia had exerted in his nearly 30 years on the nation's high court.

"Justice Scalia and I had different political orientations," he said, adding that "there's no doubt that he was a giant on the Supreme Court."

Scalia's death on Feb 13 in Texas plunged the Supreme Court into uncertainty, leaving what had been a conservative-dominated body evenly divided in a year of blockbuster cases - on abortion, affirmative action, immigration and Obama's health-care law.

Within hours of Scalia's death, leading Republicans made clear that they had no intention of confirming, or even considering, any nominee Obama might put forward in the remaining 11 months of his presidency.

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

But Obama said it was his constitutional duty to nominate a replacement, and the Senate's responsibility to provide his nominee a fair hearing.

White House spokesmen said Obama has been studying dossiers on several potential nominees; he is expected to name someone within weeks.

Biden, in an interview on Friday with The Washington Post, acknowledged that the nomination could be a "gigantic game changer," but said he thought Obama would make a relatively non-ideological pick.

"We have to pick somebody, as the president will, who is intellectually competent, is a person of high moral character, is a person who is demonstrated to have an open mind, and is a person who doesn't come with a specific agenda," he said.