00:48 - Source: CNN
The man who could replace Justice Scalia

Story highlights

Scalia's death led to a year-long vacancy, two nominees and campaign fight

Trump's surprise win gave conservatives new hope to shape high court

Washington CNN —  

The news was stunning. Justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia, a judicial icon who dedicated his career to reinvigorating conservative legal thought and, in doing so, influenced a generation of lawyers and judges, was dead.

Scalia had seemed almost immortal, a fixture on the bench who could intimidate the most experienced advocate and charm some of his fiercest ideological opposites.

His death shocked his colleagues and quickly spread to every corner of the judiciary

One judge, Neil Gorsuch, was taking a breather in the middle of a ski run when his phone rang with the news.

“I immediately lost what breath I had left, and I am not embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t see the rest of the way down the mountain for the tears,” he told an audience months later.

Gorsuch returned to his job on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals having no idea, that nearly 14 months later, he would succeed Scalia on the bench.

What a year it was.

Scalia’s death

A dazed Supreme Court executed a “lying in repose” at the Great Hall in February 2016. Former clerks stood vigil by the coffin through the night as more than 6,000 mourners paid their respects.

The shock and the grief was palpable from conservatives and liberals – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of his closest friends.

“I will miss him beyond all measure,” Justice Clarence Thomas said in a statement.

Outside of court, mourners left flowers and jars of applesauce – a nod to a dissent Scalia wrote calling a majority’s opinion “pure applesauce.”

Soon after, legal luminaries filled the pews at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for a funeral mass.

McConnell’s promise

As conservatives mourned Scalia’s death they also digested the monumental impact his passing would have on the Supreme Court.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was quick to react.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” McConnell, R-Kentucky, said. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

McConnell’s comments sparked a controversy that would endure for months, costing one judge, Merrick Garland, the job of a lifetime, roiling a presidential campaign and ultimately causing the Senate to launch a so called nuclear option changing the historic chamber’s rules.

Merrick Garland waits and waits

Liberals dared to dream. The prospect seemed real that Scalia would be replaced with a liberal justice giving the left wing of the bench a majority that could impact issues such as abortion, campaign finance and voting rights.

The hunt began for Scalia’s replacement.

President Barack Obama had a decision to make. Would he swing for the rafters and put someone on the bench who would ignite the progressive base?

A short list developed that included judges such as Sri Srinivasan, Paul Watford and Merrick Garland.

In the end, Obama went with the fellow Midwesterner – Garland – and in a Rose Garden ceremony called him “one of America’s sharpest legal minds.”

Garland – his voice cracking at times – called the nomination one of the “greatest honors of my life.”

Nonetheless, a few progressives in the audience felt a little of the air come out of their balloon. There was nothing really wrong with Garland at all, but he didn’t quite excite the base. Some had hoped for a younger candidate, a person with more of a diverse background.

Some had hoped for a younger candidate, a person with more of a diverse background.

Garland was a consensus candidate with a sterling legal background, and that was why Obama chose him. Perhaps in a more normal political sphere he would already have been on the bench.

4-4 Supreme Court

As for the Supreme Court, justices, for the most part, kept their heads low. At the end of the term there was a sprinkling of 4-4 cases. Obama suffered a blow when the court deadlocked on his executive orders on immigration. Several opinions were narrow, as the shorthanded court tried to find ways to avoid deadlock.

Meanwhile the presidential campaign raged on and Donald Trump did something no other candidate has ever done. He released a list of potential nominees that had been compiled by the conservative Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. It was a political necessity to shore up the evangelical and conservative base, and it eventually worked.

One name was not on the list that came out in May: Neil Gorsuch.

As summer wore on Republicans held their ground, and the momentum for Garland slipped.

Hillary Clinton praised him, but she made no promises concerning who she might nominate for the seat.

Ginsburg, in comments she would later regret, inserted herself into the campaign.

“He is a faker,” she said of Trump in an interview with CNN contributor Joan Biskupic.

In September, Trump released a second list of individuals he would consider as potential replacements. This time Gorsuch made the cut.

Two months later came the ultimate surprise: President Donald Trump.

Trump’s election would have a monumental impact on the future of the court, allowing him to cement the court’s conservative bloc.

A top list of potential nominees emerged including Gorsuch, Judge Thomas Hardiman and Judge William Pryor.

On January 31 Gorsuch and his wife Louise walked out onto the red carpet. One key ally was an invited guest: Maureen Scalia, the justice’s widow.

Gorsuch, carefully vetted by conservatives who were thrilled with his record on religious liberty issues and separation of powers, was their dream candidate.

Fourteen months after the death of Scalia, Gorsuch – a man who once called Scalia a “lion of the law” – was confirmed to replace him.