SCOTUS opens first session without Antonin Scalia

Story highlights

  • Chief Justice John Roberts memorialized the late Justice Antonin Scalia from the bench Monday
  • Roberts praised his "irrepressible spirit" and called him "our man for all seasons," and then the chief pivoted

(CNN)Chief Justice John Roberts memorialized the late Justice Antonin Scalia from the bench Monday praising his "irrepressible spirit" and calling him "our man for all seasons" -- and then the chief pivoted.

"Now we turn to the business of the Court," he said as the justices launched into two hours of oral arguments.
Justice Scalia's death may be causing turmoil in the political branches, and it might make the court's internal deliberations more complicated, but Roberts wants to send a clear message. Perhaps more than any other justice, he cares about the institution of the Court and preserving its legitimacy.
    Three years ago, long before the White House and Congress began their current battles, Roberts expressed his concern about the other branches of government in a speech to the University of Nebraska.
    "They are not getting along very well these days among themselves," Roberts said. "And I don't want it to spill over and affect us."
    As such, last Friday evening at 9:48 p.m., after more than 6,000 people had come through the Court to pay respects, and on the eve of Scalia's funeral, the Court issued an order in a controversial case concerning redistricting in North Carolina.
    Because of the lying in repose, the Court did cancel its closed door conference originally scheduled for last Friday, but that was to pay respects to Scalia, his family, and probably also because the chief justice wanted to greet the President as he came over for a visit. Indeed, out of the range of cameras, Roberts met Obama at the front door of the chamber and shook his hand.
    On Monday, the court heard two hours of arguments that seemed subdued in the beginning, but the justices picked up the pace after a few minutes. Scalia's chair was draped in black and it will remain that way for about 30 days.
    The second case concerned a Fourth Amendment issue that might have animated Scalia, and arguments had a different pace without him. From the bench he often would lean back in his high backed leather chair and then suddenly pounce on an advocate's presentation.
    This week the justices will meet behind closed doors to sort out how to deal with the cases Scalia had been handling. His former clerks will remain in place for now.
    If there are cases that seemed to be split 4-4 the justices will take another look to see if there is a narrower ground that they can agree upon. They might decide to hold a case over for next term for re-argument. If they are evenly divided, that means the lower court ruling is upheld and there is no Supreme Court precedent.
    Next week, there could be opinions released, and there will be a major abortion case argued on March 2.
    In one month's time, the Court will rearrange its seating to reflect the new order of seniority on the bench. Scalia's chair will be removed, until the confirmation of his successor.
    Roberts called Scalia a man for all seasons and with an irrepressible spirit. He also described Scalia's record on the court, noting that he authored 282 opinions.
    Roberts added, "He was known on occasion to dissent," which prompted laughs inside the room. Scalia's fiery and blunt dissents have become legendary and are signature of his legacy.
    CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story misstated how many majority opinions Scalia wrote based on comments from Chief Justice John Roberts.