MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're following the news of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. And we have NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg on the line. Nina, thanks so much for speaking with us. We just heard your reflections about Justice Scalia. I'm just wondering what your thoughts are upon hearing this news, which is rather shocking.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Well, it's totally unexpected because he was in - as far as I could tell - great shape and - both physically and mentally. And nobody expected him - there was no indication that he had any health problems. And, you know, from the piece I did that he was an enormous force on the court, sort of the leading force of conservatism there. And this is going to make for an enormous political fight just as the presidential election is about to take place. First, there will be the question as to whether there's enough time to confirm another nominee. And Sen. Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee has already said there's plenty of time. You can be sure that Republicans will not say that. And if nobody is confirmed, which is let's say at least a possibility, then the Supreme Court will be a central issue during the presidential election, something I don't believe it's ever been - in modern times, anyway. And so this is an enormous thing that's happened, and it'll affect the work of the court because there are no longer four reliably-conservative votes on the court. There are three and Justice Kennedy.
MARTIN: Well, I was going ask you to talk a little bit more about that. Where does Justice Scalia's death leave the court now? I'm particularly interested in its workload, how will it handle the workload and how will it handle the loss of a member? What happens to all the cases that are now before the court?
TOTENBERG: Well, I imagine they will still hear the cases. The court is not an institution that changes for much. And so they'll hear the cases, but whether they can decide them or not on a - if there's a 4-4 tie, that means that the lower court decision holds but has no precedential value. It's not valuable for future cases. So, you know, there are all these cases - everything from abortion to affirmative action to immigration coming out and more. And there was every possibility that some or all of them was going to be a 5 - on a 5 to 4 vote, and there no longer are four reliably-conservative justices. There are four reliably-conservative liberals - reliably-liberal justices, one swing justice and three conservative justices.
MARTIN: Nina, before we let you go - we have about a minute left - I think people see the public side of Justice Scalia. But one of the things that I think you would know well having covered the court for so long and so closely, is he actually had a warm friendship with one of the most progressive members of the court, which is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
TOTENBERG: He was very close with...
MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about that? Yeah.
TOTENBERG: He was very close with Justice Ginsburg. I did an interview with both of them on the stage about a year and a half ago or a year ago, and they came to play. And they came with warm memories of each other and battling each other on all of the issues on which they disagreed - of which there are many. And I have to say as somebody who's known him for a very long time, he was a warm friend - and I considered myself a friend - in many, many ways. He could take it as well as he gave it, and he just - and he had a wonderful sense of humor. And you just sort of had to rock with the - with what happened with him. He was not a gentle soul, but he was a delightful and happy one.
MARTIN: That's NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, speaking with us about the death today of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Nina Totenberg, thanks so much for speaking with us.
TOTENBERG: My pleasure.
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