Washington: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a fiery conservative who helped shape American legal thought, died Saturday. He was 79.
Scalia, the longest-serving justice on the high court, died in his sleep while on a hunting trip in Texas, local media reported.
"Justice Antonin Scalia was a man of God, a patriot and an unwavering defender of the written Constitution and the rule of law," Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement.
"He was the solid rock who turned away so many attempts to depart from and distort the Constitution. His fierce loyalty to the Constitution set an unmatched example, not just for judges and lawyers, but for all Americans."
Scalia was first appointed to the highest court in the land in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, making him the first Italian-American to serve there.
The process to nominate and confirm his replacement will be acrimonious at best, with his death coming in the final year of a Democratic president`s tenure facing a highly divided, Republican-held Congress.
"What is less than zero? The chances of Obama successfully appointing a Supreme Court Justice to replace Scalia?" commented Conn Carroll, spokesman for Republican Senator Mike Lee.
The process will likely have a major impact on the 2016 presidential campaign.
Indeed, the Republican majority in Congress could block any nomination during the final months of President Barack Obama`s tenure, delaying the process until the next president.
That means the court could be short-handed for about a year or more, with the next president not due to be sworn until next January.
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz was quick to press for such an outcome.
"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," he tweeted.