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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Dead at 79; GOP Candidates React to Death of Justice Scalia; Russia, U.S. Agree to Cooperate on Syria. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired February 14, 2016 - 07:00   ET



[07:00:26]VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: You see the flag there at half staff outside of the Supreme Court this morning after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

CHRISTI PAUL, CNN ANCHOR: The 79-year-old died in his sleep while on a hunting trip to west Texas. Scalia's death has evoked an outpouring of sorrow across the political spectrum. And with his death, the presidential campaign season takes on a whole new shape.

We're always so grateful for your company. Thanks for being. I'm Christi Paul.

BLACKWELL: I'm Victor Blackwell. Good to be with you.

The uncompromising voice of conservatism, the nation's highest court there now silent. Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden vacancy on the bench is now setting up an election year fight that could shift the balance of the Supreme Court.

PAUL: This morning, we're following reaction from the Republican candidates at last night's debate.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta leading our coverage from Washington.

Good morning, Jim.


This is going to be the debate for the next several weeks here in Washington I think. Let's just look and see what's happening. This is the latest video coming in. Justice Antonin Scalia's body arriving at the Sunset Funeral Home in El Paso Texas. His body escorted by U.S. Marshals and Texas state troopers.

We should point out, Justice Scalia, he died in his sleep at the age of 79. As you said, while on a hunting trip in Texas, went to bed Friday night not feeling well. He was found unresponsive Saturday afternoon. And as for his legacy, it was deep. It was very influential, 29 years on the bench. He was the longest serving member of the current court, appointed by President Reagan back in 1986, 30 years ago. He was the first Italian American on the high court.

A strong, vocal conservative voice throughout his term, a critic of Roe versus Wade, a dissenting voice in last year's same-sex marriage cases. Most recently, he was criticized most recently regarding his comments of affirmative action.

With all these tributes now, the question is, of course, who will succeed Scalia and who will appoint that person?

President Obama says he intends to make that nomination in due time. No question about, he wants to do that. But Senate Republicans have made it clear they want the next president to fill that vacancy and, of course, there is a lot of reaction this morning. His death and the battle for the replacement on the bench loomed large in last night's Republican debate down in South Carolina.

CNN's Ryan Nobles joins me now. He has reaction from the hopefuls.

It was a rare moment of unanimity actually during last night's very contentious debate.

Ryan, good morning.


And you're right. The Republicans didn't agree on very much last night, but they did talk quite a bit about Justice Scalia and the battle to replace him.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A moment of silence for Justice Antonin Scalia.

NOBLES (voice-over): It did not take long for the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to get political in the Republican presidential primary debate.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it's up to Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it. It's called delay, delay, delay.

NOBLES: One by one, the GOP candidates paid homage to the conservative lion and predicted that any Obama nominee to replace him would be unsuccessful.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is no doubt in my mind that Barack Obama will not have a consensus pick when he submits that person to the Senate.

NOBLES: But President Obama is pushing forward, promising to nominate someone quickly and warning Senate Republicans to not play politics with the court.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There will be plenty of time for me to do so and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote. These are responsibilities that I take seriously as should everyone.

NOBLES: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on the president to wait, and leave the decision in the, quote, "hands of the voters" and the winner of the race for the White House.

Rank and file Republicans like Lindsey Graham said any Obama nominee will have a tough time being confirmed.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The practical consequences that no one will be appointed that's not a consensus choice.

NOBLES: And as the president and Senate leader squabble, it will be against a backdrop of an increasingly divisive presidential election.


NOBLES: Hillary Clinton rushed to support Obama's right to pick the nominee and push the Senate to confirm.

CLINTON: It is outrageous that Republicans in the Senate and on the campaign trail have already pledged to block any replacement that President Obama nominates.

NOBLES: The Republican candidates vowed to stand in the way. And once elected, nominate a conservative in the mold of Scalia.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: One of the most important judgments for the men and women of South Carolina to make is who on this stage has the background the principle the character, the judgment and the strength of resolve to nominate and confirm principled constitutionalists to the court.

[07:05:13] That will be what I will do if I'm elected president.

NOBLES: Setting the stage for a rocky few months in Washington with the future of the Supreme Court and the White House in the balance.


NOBLES: And I spent the last new days following Marco Rubio on the campaign trail. He was already talking passionately about the responsibility of the next president to appoint a conservative jurist to the Supreme Court. That becomes even more important now in the presidential campaign trail going forward, especially in a socially conservative state like South Carolina -- Jim.

ACOSTA: Absolutely, Ryan. And when you talk to any of these candidates, they often mention Antonin Scalia as someone who they would like to see on the Supreme Court, somebody like Justice Scalia.

Ryan Nobles, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

For more on the partisan battle over replacing Scalia, I want to bring in our CNN Supreme Court reporter Ariane de Vogue.

And, Ariane, I just wanted to ask you, you know, the reactions from Capitol Hill were pretty swift and fairly predictable. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican senator, came out where a statement last night saying, quote, "It's been standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during a presidential election year."

I mean, I suppose that isn't really true because Justice Anthony Kennedy was nominated in 1987 and confirmed in 1988. I supposed there the kernel of truth in Grassley's comment in that there hasn't been somebody need to replace on the Supreme Court every time an election year has come up. So, that might mean that that would be the standard practice I suppose to some extent.

But there is precedent for this, right?

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: Well, there is. And if you look at what might have been behind President Obama, is that if the president were to wait, for instance, and the next president were to make the nomination, that nomination maybe would come in February. And then maybe a confirmation in June and that would mean the court not only be divided 4-4 for the rest of this term but next term as well.

I mean, this vacancy by Scalia really effects the current term. When the court is 4-4, equally divided, that means that the lower court decision is upheld. So, we have major case this is term -- immigration, abortion, affirmative action.

And if you look at one of the cases, for instance, the public union's case the lower court the ruled in favor of the unions but the unions were very nervous, because after oral arguments, it looked like the conservatives might reverse that. As it stands, if they were 4-4, that lower court opinion would stand.

If the court -- the justices could decide to hold over some cases but the question is, how long? When would there be a new justice put on the bench?

ACOSTA: And, Ariane, I guess one thing I wanted to ask you was there is already a list of potential candidates out in who could be picked for this vacancy, great legal minds out there. But could the president try to avoid this partisan battle or at least minimize it somewhat by making a different kind of choice? Somebody who might be considered a moderate? Or even a liberal Republican just to see if he could get somebody on the Supreme Court? What is the likelihood that he might try to do that politically to navigate some of this?

DE VOGUE: Well, the president could do that. And if you look at some of the lists out there, for instance, on top the list is Judge Sri Srinivasan. He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate. So, maybe -- for his lower court appointment. So he would still be on top of the list.

And he was actually congratulated by Ted Cruz at the time at his confirmation hearing. There are other moderates, Merrick Garland, he's a moderate. He's older. And maybe if president was replacing someone in the same party, he would want to try to get a younger nominee. But Merrick Garland at 63, he is considered in some circles a moderate. The president definitely could go outside the box. It just depends how he's going to play it.

ACOSTA: That's right, Ariane. And I suppose the president could tempt Republicans by putting forward those two nominees as you mentioned, and see what they do, because the Republicans do run the risk if they decide not to move on a nominee from President Obama, they could end with the President Hillary Clinton or a President Bernie Sanders where you might have a much more liberal pick.

Ariane De Vogue, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

Politics aside Scalia was a revered member of the judicial community. I want to bring in a man who knew Justice Scalia. We're joined on the phone by Charles Cooper. He is a former Supreme Court law clerk and chairman of the Cooper Kirk Law Firm.

And you were a clerk for Justice Rehnquist. What was your experience like dealing with Justice Scalia? Was he as outspoken and brash and straightforward as everybody remembers him?

CHARLES COOPER, FORMER SUPREME COURT LAW CLERK (via telephone): Well, yes, Jim. Thank you. Thank you and good morning. And thank you for having me.

I have many, many fond memories of Justice Scalia. It was my great joy to have been a close friend of Nino's and also to have appeared before him as an advocate. And the experience both at the personal and professional level is one that I hold very dear and still, you know, really in a state of shock at his loss and grieving for his family, especially his lovely wife Maureen and their children.

ACOSTA: And we've been talking about hiss legacy all morning long. What do you think his legacy will be? How will he be remembered as the Supreme Court justice?

COOPER: Well, I think -- I think it will -- his legacy primarily will be as the acknowledged leader of a movement in the law called originalism. The simple proposition that the Constitution should be interpreted by courts to mean what it was understood and intended to mean at the time the provision was adopted. And that it is not the role of the court, as it is sometimes said, to keep the Constitution in tune with the times. That's the role of the people themselves through the Article V Amendment process.

Justice Scalia was the most passionate, I think, and articulate advocate for that position. It was one that was reflected throughout his 30 years on the court, not just in his role as the justice and deciding cases and writing opinions. And, of course, his opinion- writing style was -- is famous. But also, as a scholar, he spoke probably as much as any justice in

history. At law schools and in -- and, you know, popular audiences, advancing his view of the role of the courts. And I think that will be his primary legacy as history records his really outsized role on the United States Supreme Court.

ACOSTA: Absolutely and I think Ronald Reagan knew exactly what he was getting when he picked Antonin Scalia for the Supreme Court.

Chuck Cooper, thank you very much for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

Next, the death of Justice Scalia has already turned political and took center stage last night in the GOP debate. Republicans did not agree on much but did stand united on when Scalia's replacement should be nominated and that is after President Obama leaves office.

Plus, Justice Scalia's conservative voice was key on the Supreme Court and will undoubtedly echo through the chambers of that high court for a long time. Those who worked with him know how his legacy and influence will live on. Later, we'll talk live with a former clerk of Justice Scalia. That's coming up.


[07:16:47] ACOSTA: The death Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a game changer here in Washington, not just in the election but in the balance of the court, leaving the remaining justice split 4-4 in ideological leanings.

To discuss this, I want to bring in our panel: CNN political commentators Errol Louis, Ben Ferguson, Jeffrey Lord, along with CNN politics reporter Ed Bradner.

Eric, first to you. Trump conceded last night if he were president, he would want to nominate a justice, one that could sail through the nomination process. The president may have a couple of candidates who fit that description but will they be blocked, do you think? I think it is just a natural that Republicans at this point will say, no, no, no. Wait until the next president.

But they may be tempted to take up somebody who the president puts forward.

ERIC BRADNER, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Yes, absolutely. Donald trump last night was calling on Senate Republicans to delay, delay, delay, right? He used Mitch McConnell's name. And that is exactly what McConnell says he's planning to do.

Historically, it's taken 75-90 days to confirm a Supreme Court justice and we're talking about eleven months here before another president is sworn in. But last night demonstrated what incredible partisan football this has become immediately. Senate Republicans are saying there is no chance that they are going to move on a nominee while President Obama says he's definitely going to send them one and the presidential election intervened. On the debate stage, every Republican was saying either don't nominate

someone or nominate a consensus pick. Hillary Clinton meanwhile was hammering Republicans for their position sort of elevating this, turning this into a presidential race with the Supreme Court hanging in the balance.

ACOSTA: And, Errol, can you imagine President Obama not picking someone when he has almost a year left in office? It seems farfetched.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely not, absolutely not. And it was a little disappointing to see the immediate politicization of it. As was said, it's 75 days. I mean, even Robert Bork, the most contentious, other than Clarence Thomas nomination process I can remember, I think that was something like 114 days.

So, win or lose, whether a nomination goes forward or not, it deserves to be processed. To have not only the candidates and, look, they're running for office, let's give them a pass on that. But to have the Senate majority leader say, I'm simple going to extend the dysfunction of Congress to the highest court in the land, which up until now at least has been relatively free of the day to day sort of paralysis that has hemmed up so much of American government, very disappointing and very troubling to hear.

I can't imagine the president would say, OK, I'm a lame duck, even though my constitutional authority extends for another year, I'm going to simply throw in the towel and act as if I don't exist. That would be disastrous for the country. I don't think it's going to happen.

ACOSTA: And, Ben, if Republicans had the White House right now, would they yield until the end of this administration? Would you say, is that -- is that how a Republican, maybe a Mitt Romney, a President Romney would act?

[07:20:04] Just wait until the next president? Isn't that a bit much?

BEN FERGUSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, of course. But I also think this is about the legacy of the justice and each justice up there wants to make sure. We've seen justices who have extended their time on the court or shorten their time on the court on purpose to make sure someone that's like-minded towards o them would take their place.

And I think both sides understand that this isn't politicizing. This is why we select the president to make sure their side gets to keep their people on the court and the other side gets to keep their people on the court. That's the reason we see people coming off the Supreme Court, you know, at awkward moments.

The fact is, you're in the middle of a very heated presidential debate. This is going to be political, as it should be. The Supreme Court is part of why you pick the president.

So, I don't think that anyone thought for a moment that Scalia would want to be replaced by a liberal judge by Barack Obama. That would not be what he would want. Certainly wouldn't be what people, Ronald Reagan picked him, would want either.

And this is something that is going to be delayed. I think it should be delayed. I do not think this is a liability for Republicans. If anything, it would be a liability for Republicans in Congress if they did in fact replace him with a liberal nominee from Barack Obama who's already put quite a few liberals on the Supreme Court, and it would actually hurt Republicans if they did this now. So, I just don't see this being that big of an issue.

ACOSTA: Right. And Jeffrey Lord, one thing that is so much fun about covering Donald Trump, is that he tells you exactly what he thinks. Last night, he said, yes, if he were president, he would want to nominate somebody.

So, how can you deny the president, the current president that opportunity?

JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I mean, I think any of those candidates if they were in President Obama's place would want to nominate somebody. But the point is here -- I mean, and there is precedent right now were delaying and not confirming.

President Lyndon Johnson in the middle of the election year in 1968 had a resignation from Justice Earl Warren, he promptly nominated Associate Justice Fortas, who was an old friend of his and a crony and a liberal Democrat. The Republican senators of the day put up a furious fight and he was defeated. So, there is absolute precedent for this.

ACOSTA: There is precedent for that and also precedent for someone being confirmed during a presidential year, as we know, with Anthony Kennedy --

LORD: Well, the Anthony Kennedy thing, I was involved in that working for President Reagan at the time. That was the Bork seat, if you will. Robert Bork was nominated in July of 1987. His nomination failed --

ACOSTA: It was continuation of that process, right.

LORD: It was a continuation of the process from July of 1987.

ACOSTA: All right. Well, that is a good point and I think Ted Cruz brought that up last night. Because there was that Chuck Grassley statement that came out and said that, yes, Kennedy -- that there -- you know, this has been the norm for the last 80 years, and Democrats were saying, no, no, no, Justice Kennedy was named and confirmed in 1988. And so I think these will be the talking points we'll be hearing from the next several weeks.

Errol Louis, Ben Ferguson, Jeffrey Lord, Eric Bradner -- thank you very much.

And I'll send it back to you, Victor and Christi, in Atlanta.

Guys, you know, the talking points were written I think before the obituaries were written here in Washington. This is going to be a big fight here in the coming year.

PAUL: No doubt about it. Thank you so much, Jim. Always learning so much for you.

Listen, there are some other things we need to talk to you about today.

BLACKWELL: Including a deadly car pile up in Pennsylvania. At least 60 vehicles here. Dozens hurt.


[07:27:10] PAUL: Blinding snow may have caused this. You can't see all of it but there was a sixty car pile up here near Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania. Three people died and at least 70 are injured. As though snow covered -- all of that snow covered the roads, this happened as record cold too we should point out is moving in all along the East Coast.

BLACKWELL: Yes, beyond Pennsylvania, wind chills in some parts of the degrees below zero. Woo. We're seeing record lows in New York, zero. Just zero there in Central Park this morning with a wind chill of 18 below.

PAUL: A Mississippi police officer, by the way, we have this update, is out of surgery in stable condition but still on a ventilator after being shot in the head. This happened in Clarksdale, Mississippi, late last night. Investigators say the officer had responded to a robbery call at a convenient store. He stopped the robbers four blocks away, they say, and that's where he was shot. Those two masked men, by the way, got away.

BLACKWELL: President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed to cooperate on Syria. We've learned of a phone conversation happened early this morning. They agreed to intensify efforts to put in agreement on Syria into action. This comes after French and U.S. leaders criticized bombings by Russia in Syria. The French prime minister said Russians are bombing civilians. But Russia says there is no evidence that that is happening.

PAUL: Still to come, we're remembering the life of Justice Antonin Scalia and his legacy. We've heard him described as having a wicked sense of humor, as grounded, as feisty, as not PC and priding himself on that.

In his own words, though, hear how he made his mark on the nation's highest court.


ANTONIN SCALIA, U.S. SUPREME COURT ASSOCIATE JUSTICE: I sleep very well at night knowing that I'm doing what I'm supposed to do, which is to apply -- to apply the Constitution.