Tributes for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia turn political

Last Updated Feb 13, 2016 9:00 PM EST

WASHINGTON -- As news spread of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the tributes swiftly turned political, with lawmakers and others addressing the implications of a High Court vacancy during a presidential election year.

Scalia, 79, was part of a 5-4 conservative majority -- with one of the five, Anthony Kennedy, sometimes voting with liberals on the court.

"He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues," Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement on behalf of the court and retired justices. "His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he so loyally served. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife Maureen and his family."

Scalia's death leaves President Barack Obama weighing when to nominate a successor, a decision that immediately sparked a political struggle drawing in Congress and the presidential candidates.

Late Saturday, President Obama called Scalia a larger-than-life presence on the Court who dedicated his life to the rule of law and influenced generations of lawyers.

"He will no doubt be remembered as one of the most consequential judges and thinkers on the Supreme Court," Mr. Obama said in a brief statement from California.

The president said he would "fulfill my Constitutional responsibility" to nominate a successor "in due time," saying at the moment, it was important to focus on Scalia's legacy and think about his family.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the nomination should fall to the next president.

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

That thought was echoed by Florida Sen. and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who said in a statement, "The next president must nominate a justice who will continue Justice Scalia's unwavering belief in the founding principles that we hold dear."

Fellow candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted, "Justice Scalia was an American hero. We owe it to him, & the Nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next President names his replacement."

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich agreed, tweeting "We owe it to his memory to ensure that he not be replaced by a left-wing #Obama nominee."

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, said in a statement praising Scalia, "Justice Scalia's replacement should be considered carefully and thoughtfully because it is vital to our nation's future that we confirm a justice who will continue his legacy. I will adamantly oppose any attempt by President Obama to fill this vacancy during the remainder of his term."

Democrats were outraged at that idea, with Sen. Harry Reid, the chamber's top Democrat, saying it would be "unprecedented in recent history" for the court to have a vacancy for a year.

"I hope that no one will use this sad news to suggest that the President or the Senate should not perform its constitutional duty," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The American people deserve to have a fully functioning Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States is too important to our democracy for it to be understaffed for partisan reasons."

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said calls for Scalia's seat to remain empty "dishonor our Constitution."

"The Senate has a constitutional responsibility here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons," Clinton said.

Mr. Obama learned about Scalia's death Saturday afternoon while playing golf in La Quinta, California, before a summit with Asian leaders, and offered condolences to Scalia's family, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.