The United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead at a ranch in Texas on Saturday morning. US Marshals said the alarm was raised when the senior judge didn’t appear for breakfast. He was 79. 

The previous day, it was reported, the judge had been out quail shooting. A cause of death was not immediately known.

A hearse and other vehicles were seen close to the entrance of the ranch at Cibolo Creek, near Shafter. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts paid tribute to Scalia, telling media that he and his fellow justices were “saddened” to hear of the news.

President Obama called Scalia’s a “brilliant legal mind.” The president now faces an important decision in appointing a successor to replace the conservative-leaning judge. The balance is currently a fine one, with four justices seen as liberal leaning, and four as more conservative.

The next appointment, therefore, could be a critical one for the Court – and the United States as a whole. The Supreme Court, along with the Congress and the Senate, represents a fundamental institution in deciding America’s legislation on debated such topics as abortion, gun control and affirmative action.

Outgoing President Obama may have no better opportunity than this to shape the country to his ideals.

An appointee of Republican President Ronald Reagan, Scalia assumed his position in 1986. The New Jersey native dissented in cases involving same-sex marriage and took strong positions in favour of gun rights, states’ right to outlaw abortion, and privacy of the individual.

A huge debate over Justice Scalia’s replacement is now sure to take place, with figures from both sides of the political divide already drawing battle lines. Some Republicans, fearful of the prospects of a liberal majority court, are calling for the post to remain vacant until the presidential elections in nine months’ time.

Democratic nomination hopeful Hillary Clinton has railed against such a suggestion, saying the Senate has a “constitutional responsibility” to fill the vacant seat as soon as possible.