How Scalia’s Death Impacts The Supreme Court, Explained In 5 Images

Antonin Scalia’s legacy is a complex one, but these graphics help explain how he shaped SCOTUS—and where it goes from here.

How Scalia’s Death Impacts The Supreme Court, Explained In 5 Images
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13 at the age of 79. During his 30-year tenure, he was one of the court’s most vocal members, and became recognized for his verbose—and often biting—written opinions. Scalia was also known for his conservative “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, and with his passing, the court is now evenly split between jurists with liberal and conservative ideologies.
Obama’s nomination for Scalia’s replacement could potentially shift the court to a liberal majority, which goes to show just how influential Scalia is in life and death.


Scalia’s death opens up an incredibly complex political theater, and these five visualizations help explain both his legacy and how the next few months could play out.

Read the full analysis hereBenjamin Morris/FiveThirtyEight

1. Even though he was never chief justice, Scalia carried the most influence—in and out of court.
He cast the deciding vote in 342 cases between 1986 and 2014 (and voted conservatively in 284 of those occurrences). Benjamin Morris, a writer at FiveThirtyEight, ran a Google analysis and found that Scalia was the most-written-about Supreme Court justice in the last 15 years.

Read the full analysis hereAndrew D. Martin and Kevin M. Quinn/FiveThirtyEight

2. Scalia was usually on the winning side.
In all cases that came before the Supreme Court during his service, Scalia was in the majority at least 75% of the time, except in 2014. In the nonunanimous cases, Scalia was in the majority more than 50% of the time. Political science professors Andrew D. Martin and Kevin M. Quinn argue:

To understand who wins and loses on the Supreme Court, political scientists look to the “median justice.” Simply put, the median justice is the justice most likely to supply the crucial fifth vote—the justice with four justices to his or her right and four to his or her left. In the closest cases, the median justice is the one who determines the winner or loser. What makes Scalia’s death so significant is that until another justice is appointed, we won’t have a unique median justice.

Read the full analysis hereBenjamin Morris/FiveThirtyEight

3. And he was very vocal when he was on the losing side.
Even though Scalia was often in the majority, he made his opinion known—often with a scathing tongue—when he was in the minority. In his eight-page, no-holds-barred dissent to the United States v. Windsor—in which the court ruled that a ban on federal benefits for gay couples was unconstitutional—Scalia voiced his anger at how gay marriage opponents were characterized by the court. “It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race,” he wrote.

See the full graphic hereThe New York Times

4. Scalia wasn’t the most conservative.
Though he had an originalist philosophy—meaning that he interpreted the Constitution through the lens of what it meant at the time it was written, rather than from a contemporary perspective—Scalia wasn’t the most conservative. That distinction goes to justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Scroll the full graphic hereGregor Aisch, Josh Keller, K.K. Rebecca Lai and Karen Yourish/The New York Times

5. The Senate will likely confirm Obama’s nomination, even if it’s an election year.
The timing of Scalia’s death—at the end of Obama’s presidential term—is already causing controversy over who should nominate his successor. Republican senators—who hold the Senate majority—say that the next president should pick Scalia’s replacement; Democrats argue that a replacement should be found as swiftly as possible. Cases involving affirmative action, labor unions, immigration, and abortion are on the docket this year. If the Supreme Court is deadlocked—which may happen because of the 4-4 split—either the lower court’s ruling is upheld or the case is set aside to be reargued the next term, which is scheduled for October. Whoever replaces Scalia could potentially impact the ruling in these cases. It’s worth pointing out, as The New York Times did this weekend, that the Senate has never taken more than 125 days to confirm a nomination. Since 1900, there have been eight nominations during an election year—and the Senate confirmed six of them. Obama will name the next justice to join the court, and like his previous nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, he or she will probably lean liberal in their ideology.


We know one thing for certain: Scalia’s replacement will be very, very influential, and odds are good that they’ll also be liberal. Whether or not they’ll be as infamously biting as Scalia, though, remains to be seen.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.