Conservative US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, has died, setting up a major political showdown between President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled Senate over who will replace him just months before a presidential election.
"On behalf of the court and retired justices, I am saddened to report that our colleague Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away," Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement, calling Scalia an "extraordinary individual and jurist."
Scalia's death was first reported by the San Antonio News-Express, who said he had apparently died of natural causes while visiting a luxury resort in West Texas.
Appointed to the top US. court in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, Scalia was known for his strident conservative views and theatrical flair in the courtroom.
Obama will face a stiff battle to win confirmation of a nominee to replace Scalia, with Republicans likely to delay in the hope that one of their own wins the November election. But if Obama does successfully nominate a replacement before his term ends in January, it could tilt the court to the left for the first time in decades.
"Justice Scalia was an American hero. We owe it to him, and the nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next president names his replacement," Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate, said on Twitter.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement Saturday afternoon, calling Scalia a man of God, a patriot and an "unwavering defender of the written Constitution."
"He was the solid rock who turned away so many attempts to depart from and distort the Constitution," Abbott said. "We mourn his passing, and we pray that his successor on the Supreme Court will take his place as a champion for the written Constitution and the Rule of Law. Cecilia and I extend our deepest condolences to his family, and we will keep them in our thoughts and prayers."
The New York Times describes Scalia as "an exceptional stylist who labored over his opinions and took pleasure in finding precisely the right word or phrase. In dissent, he took no prisoners. The author of a majority opinion could be confident that a Scalia dissent would not overlook any shortcomings."
Justice Scalia wrote for a broader audience than most of his colleagues. His opinions were read by lawyers and civilians for pleasure and instruction.
Justice Scalia’s sometimes withering questioning helped transform what had been a sleepy bench when he arrived into one that Chief Justice Roberts has said has become too active, with the justices interrupting the lawyers and each other."
The Christian Science Monitor's Warren Richey described Scalia in 2005 when speculation grew that Scalia might be nominated as chief justice.
In his view, judges exceed their authority when they impose their own policy preferences by expanding constitutional rights that never existed in the original document. He says by looking to the text of the Constitution as it was originally written, judicial discretion can be minimized and true constitutional freedoms better preserved.
It is an approach that is increasingly resonating with many conservatives upset over what they view as unrestrained activism by US judges - including some jurists appointed by Republican presidents.
The nation's highest court is set to decide its first major abortion case in nearly 10 years as well as key cases on voting rights, affirmative action and immigration.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Scott Malone; Editing by Paul Simao)