US Supreme Court vacancy upends presidential race

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The sudden and shocking death of US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia opened a new and incendiary front in the already red-hot 2016 presidential race, one that promises to divide Democrats and Republicans and, perhaps, Republicans from themselves.

The vacancy on the court, which is now evenly split 4-4 between its conservative and liberal wings, had Republicans calling on President Barack Obama to refrain from choosing a successor to the right-leaning Scalia while Democrats urged Obama to do as the US Constitution requires and put forward a candidate to face confirmation in an albeit hostile Senate.

The prospect of such a battle drew swift and furious comment from candidates vying to be elected president in November.

Facing off in a debate only hours after the 79-year-old Scalia’s death was announced, some Republican presidential candidates seized the moment to caution voters that their party’s front-runner, billionaire businessman Donald Trump, could not be trusted to nominate a stalwart conservative.

“If Donald Trump is president, he will appoint liberals,” charged US Senator Ted Cruz of Texas during the debate in South Carolina, which holds a Republican nominating contest next Saturday.

“Two branches of government hang in the balance, not just the presidency, but the Supreme Court,” Cruz said. “If we get this wrong, if we nominate the wrong candidate, the Second Amendment, life, marriage, religious liberty, every one of those hangs in the balance.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also took a shot at Trump.

“Donald Trump is not a conservative, so I don’t trust him to pick a judge,” Graham said before the debate. A real estate mogul, Trump has supported Democratic politicians in the past.