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Image: Antonin Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia dies, jolts political world

02/13/16 06:54PM

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most politically consequential justices in modern times, has died unexpectedly.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the bench's ideological conservative known for his fiery comments in and out of the courtroom, has died, Texas' governor said Saturday. He was 79. [...]
A cause of death was not immediately confirmed by NBC News. Chief Justice Roberts said that he and his fellow justices were saddened to learn of his death.
"He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues. His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he loyally served," Roberts said in a statement.
Scalia's passing creates the first high court vacancy since 2010. He is the first sitting justice to die since then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist's death in 2005.
Scalia, a larger-than-life personality with a controversial record on the court, leaves behind his wife, Maureen, and their nine children.
His death, of course, creates conditions that are likely to rock the political world for much of 2016. The current Supreme Court has earned a reputation for being friendly to the right, thanks largely to a five-member conservative majority, with justices who were appointed by Republican presidents.
Scalia's passing obviously changes that equation, offering President Obama an opportunity to not only replace one of the court's most reliable far-right jurists with a center-left successor, but also to shift the balance of ideological power on the Supreme Court and quite possibly change the direction of American jurisprudence for many years to come.
Obama has already placed two progressive justices on the Court -- Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- but in both of these cases, this president's nominees were replacing justices who were already considered members of the center-left contingent, leaving the larger balance of the institution unchanged.
Replacing Scalia, however, is a different story entirely.
Supreme Court could continue without Scalia

Supreme Court business could continue without Scalia

02/13/16 06:05PM

Pete Williams, NBC News justice correspondent, explains that the Supreme Court could continue hearing cases without Antonin Scalia's position filled, making it an eight-person body with cases on subjects ranging from abortion to immigration waiting to be heard. watch

This Week in God, 2.13.16

02/13/16 08:11AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a leading Republican presidential hopeful picking an unexpected fight with one of the world's most prominent religious leaders.
Over the course of the presidential campaign, Donald Trump has feuded with a surprising number of people, countries, groups, states, news outlets, and minority groups. But as the New York Times reported, the GOP frontrunner this week directed at least some of his ire at Pope Francis.
Donald J. Trump has a message for Pope Francis ahead of the pope's trip to pray with migrants along the Mexican border: You don't get it.
The pope is planning to go to the Rio Grande next week while on a visit to Mexico. He plans to offer prayer and show solidarity with suffering refugees.
Mr. Trump does not approve. In an interview with the Fox Business Network on Thursday, the Republican presidential candidate, who has proposed building a wall along the United States's southern border, suggested that Francis was serving as a pawn of the Mexican government.
Echoing a complaint Trump first made several months ago, the Republican candidate complained that the pope "is a very political person." Trump added, "I don't think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico. I think Mexico got him to do it because they want to keep the border just the way it is. They're making a fortune, and we're losing."
For the record, there is no "open border," illegal border crossings have declined, and border security has reached an all-time high in the Obama era.
I spoke yesterday with John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, who said, "If Trump wants to persuade Christian voters, he shouldn't pick a fight with the most popular religious leader on the global stage. Pope Francis knows that defending the dignity of immigrants isn't about playing politics. It's a Christian imperative. Trump likes to show off his family Bible, but he missed a central lesson about welcoming the stranger and protecting the refugee."
It's true that in the larger electoral context, Trump is making a concerted effort to appeal to Christian voters, and his criticism of Pope Francis probably won't help. Then again, in upcoming primary states like South Carolina, the vast majority of Republican primary voters are Evangelical Protestants, not Catholics, so perhaps Trump is willing to take the chance.
Also from the God Machine this week:

Friday's Mini-Report, 2.12.16

02/12/16 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* The latest school shooting: "The double shooting at a Glendale, Arizona, high school Friday morning involved two 15-year-old sophomores who both died of single gunshot wounds, authorities said. The incident at Independence High School was not an active shooter situation once police cleared the scene and found the teens dead, Glendale Police Officer Tracey Breeden said at a news conference."
* Syria: "World powers began work Friday on the details of a temporary ceasefire in war-ravaged Syria, but rebels and aid groups on the ground were skeptical the "ambitious" deal could be implemented."
* Flint: "The Obama administration plans to extend Medicaid coverage to pregnant women and children affected by the Flint, Michigan water crisis, senior officials told House Democrats on Friday."
* Protecting more natural treasures: "President Obama designated three new national monuments in the California desert Thursday, expanding federal protection to 1.8 million acres of landscapes that have retained their natural beauty despite decades of heavy mining, cattle ranching and off-roading."
* Encouraging economic data: "U.S. consumers boosted their spending during the year's first month, and finished 2015 on a stronger note than first thought, the latest sign of low unemployment and cheap gasoline outweighing concerns about market turmoil."
* Related news: "The U.S. government posted a $55 billion budget surplus in January, up from an $18 billion deficit in the same month a year ago, the Treasury Department said on Wednesday. Analysts polled by Reuters had expected a $45 billion surplus for last month. Treasury officials said the surplus was boosted by the highest receipts on record for the month of January."
* A minor miracle: "The Senate on Friday confirmed a handful of ambassadors and State Department officials, including the American ambassadors to Sweden and Norway -- a move that came after Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, lifted his months-long hold on the nominations which were in place because of his objection to the Iran nuclear deal."
Republican presidential candidate Jim Gilmore greets voters outside the polling place at Webster School on primary day Feb. 9, 2016 in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty)

Gilmore's withdrawal shrinks GOP field to six

02/12/16 04:55PM

He was the one presidential candidate who observers routinely forgot about. He was left out of some of the polls; he was excluded from most of the debates; and he didn't really have any money.
And as of this afternoon, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore's Republican candidacy has apparently come to an end. The Washington Examiner published his official statement wrapping up his campaign.
"My campaign was intended to offer the gubernatorial experience, with the track record of a true conservative, experienced in national security, to unite the party." Gilmore said, "My goal was to focus on the importance of this election as a real turning point, and to emphasize the dangers of continuing on a road that will further undermine America's economy and weaken our national security."
"Nonetheless, I will continue to express my concerns about the dangers of electing someone who has pledged to continue Obama's disastrous policies," Gilmore said. "And, I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that our next President is a free enterprise Republican who will restore our nation to greatness and keep our citizens safe."
To put it mildly, the Virginia Republican was never in contention. A few days before the Iowa caucuses, he told a radio audience, "If I get one vote, frankly, in Iowa, I'll consider it a victory." Gilmore ended up with 12 votes -- the basis for a moral victory, if little else. He then finished 12th in New Hampshire, picking up fewer votes than a couple of candidates who'd already dropped out.
This was Gilmore's second presidential campaign, following a brief stint in 2007-2008. He quit soon after launching to instead run for the U.S. Senate in his home state. (He lost by over 30 points.)
Note, last year, Gilmore argued, "I bring to the table experience that others don't have," which was not an unreasonable boast. He was a governor of Virginia; he served as an RNC chairman; and he was one of the only candidates to run in this cycle with military experience.
Indeed, with Gilmore's departure, the number of military veterans in the presidential race has now reached zero.
The only thing I'm not clear on is why Gilmore is quitting now. At the risk of being unkind, his campaign didn't really exist in any tangible way, so there's no reason he couldn't just continue to be a candidate indefinitely. It's not as if the former governor is suddenly less competitive now than he was last week, last month, or last year.
US military soldiers march during the Veterans Day Parade in New York on Nov. 11, 2014. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

Debate heats up over women, selective service

02/12/16 01:03PM

In December, the Obama administration took the historic step of opening all combat jobs to women. "We cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half the country's talents and skills," Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters.
Of course, it wasn't long before the next logical question came up: if there are no gender-related restrictions on combat service, why is the selective service system limited to young men? Two weeks ago, the top uniformed leaders from the Army and Marine Corps made the case that it's for that to change, too -- there's no reason, they said, young women should be treated differently when it comes registering for a draft.
The result is an unexpected election-year debate, with some policymakers, including the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, taking unexpected positions.
Sen. John McCain on Wednesday came out in support of requiring women to sign up for the military draft, becoming the latest top official to back the historic change. [...]
"As women serve in more roles across the armed forces, I support the recommendation of the Army Chief of Staff and the Commandant of the Marine Corps that women should register for Selective Service," McCain said in a written statement. "It is the logical conclusion of the decision to open combat positions to women."
Some of McCain's colleagues clearly disagree. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) this week introduced a bill that would block women from selective service registration.
Among Republican presidential hopefuls, Jeb Bush agrees with McCain, while Ted Cruz said he thinks it's "nuts," adding, "[T]he idea that their government would forcibly put them in a foxhole with a 220-pound psychopath trying to kill them doesn't make any sense at all." (I've read Marco Rubio's position a few times, and I'm still not entirely sure what he's trying to say.)
Making matters even more interesting, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that a bipartisan group of lawmakers want to bring equality -- not by having women enter the selective service system, but by eliminating the system altogether.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.12.16

02/12/16 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* With both Democratic candidates vying for support from minority communities, it was of interest yesterday when the Congressional Black Caucus PAC formally endorsed Hillary Clinton.
* With time running out before the Republicans' South Carolina primary, former President George W. Bush will hit the campaign trail on Monday night in support of Jeb Bush. It will be the former president's first campaign appearance on behalf of his brother.
* Speaking of the Palmetto State, local GOP officials believe Trump's South Carolina ground game falls far short of his rivals', but Republicans believe he's likely to win the primary anyway.
* Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone, a Republican mega-donor, officially made the switch this week from Chris Christie to John Kasich. Langone will not, however, support the Ohio governor's super PAC, saying, "I don't give to super PACs anymore."
* And speaking of Kasich, the governor yesterday hired admaker and strategist Rex Elsass, who was part of Rand Paul's presidential campaign.
* Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who quit his Democratic presidential bid fairly early on, announced yesterday that he's decided not to run as an independent. In a speech, the former senator said, "Theoretically it could be done, but it is enormously costly and time sensitive, and I don't see the fundraising trajectory where we could make a realistic run."