WASHINGTON (AP) — Antonin Scalia's colleagues honored the late Supreme Court justice Monday in a manner he would surely have approved, in sharp exchanges and aggressive questions during the court's first session since Scalia's death.
His black cloth-draped chair next to Chief Justice John Roberts was empty, a visible reminder of Scalia's death on Feb. 13 at age 79. Roberts began the proceedings by remembering Scalia as a friend and colleague of "irrepressible spirit."
The justices first seemed restrained, understandably sad that Scalia was gone and facing a prolonged period without a full complement on the bench. Scalia had been among the most enthusiastic, sometimes cutting, questioners.
But by the second of the morning's two cases, the justices' questions grew more spirited and they at times interrupted the advocates and each other.
In particular, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Roberts dueled over whether evidence of a crime should be thrown out of court if the police did something wrong or illegal in obtaining it.
"What stops us from becoming a police state?" Sotomayor asked, if police could routinely stop people for no reason other than to check if the person has an arrest warrant. Armed with a warrant, police can then make an arrest and search for evidence of a crime.
Does the valid warrant outweigh the illegal stop? Or should the evidence found in the search be thrown out of court because the person never should have been detained?
Roberts suggested he would allow the evidence to be used, and his questions focused on legitimate reasons officers run name checks.
"Might it protect him when he's walking up to a car?" Roberts asked.
The other justices also took part in questioning during two hours of arguments. Only Justice Clarence Thomas, on the 10th anniversary of the last time he asked a question at the court, said nothing at all.
One other oddity was that Justice Stephen Breyer did not say a thing during the second case, the one involving evidence found after an illegal stop. That case could easily divide the court between its liberal and conservative justices, though Breyer's silence made the outcome impossible to predict.
Two days after Thomas read from the New Testament at Scalia's funeral, with the rest of the court among the thousands of mourners, the justices emerged from the red velvet curtains behind their bench at 10 a.m. EST. But the long-scheduled day for arguments took on added poignancy because Scalia was not there.
Roberts recalled Scalia as "our man for all seasons," an apparent reference to Sir Thomas More, the English lawyer and Scalia favorite who was beheaded for his refusal to countenance England's break from the Catholic Church under King Henry VIII.
"We shall miss him beyond measure," Roberts said.
He recounted Scalia's roots in New Jersey, his graduation at the top of his class at Georgetown University and his stellar performance at Harvard Law School. As a top attorney at the Justice Department, Scalia argued his first and only case before the Supreme Court in 1976, Roberts said.
"He prevailed, establishing a perfect record before the court," Roberts said to laughter.
Scalia became the high court's 103rd justice in 1986 and wrote 282 majority opinions over the next 29 ½ years.
"He was also known on occasion to dissent," Roberts said to more laughter. Some of Scalia's sharpest language was reserved for his many dissenting opinions.
The court will leave Scalia's chair in its place on the bench until next month. Only then do the justices plan to switch seats in line with their seniority on the court. Justice Anthony Kennedy is now the longest-serving member of the court, with 28 years of experience, and will sit where Scalia sat.
President Barack Obama has vowed to nominate a candidate to take Scalia's seat, but Senate Republicans, backed by their party's presidential contenders, have pledged to block anyone Obama puts forward. Republicans have said the choice should await the next president.
It could be months, perhaps a year, before a new justice is confirmed. Next week, the court will face one of the term's biggest cases, a challenge to Texas' strict regulation of abortion clinics, with just eight justices.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Scalia authored 282 majority opinions, not 292 as Roberts said in the courtroom.