The recent death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the high court's most outspoken conservative judge, is setting up a major political showdown in a presidential election year between President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled Senate over who will replace him. The following questions and answers address the process of how a new justice is nominated and approved.
Q: Who nominates justices to the Supreme Court?
A: The president has the sole power to nominate justices, under Article II of the U.S. Constitution.
Q: Must President Barack Obama - whose term ends on Jan. 20, 2017, when the new president is sworn in - nominate a justice to fill Scalia's vacancy?
A: No, he is not required to, and immediately following Scalia's death, a number of Republican senators urged Obama to let the vacancy be filled by his successor.
Q: But Obama still has the right to nominate someone?
A: Yes, he does. The White House on Sunday said Obama plans to nominate someone to fill the vacancy, but he will wait until after the U.S. Senate is back in session on Feb. 22.
Q: What happens after the president nominates someone?
A: Any nomination requires U.S. Senate approval, by a simple majority vote, so at least 51 senators, out of the 100 total, must vote for approval. The Senate is currently controlled by the Republicans, who hold 54 seats.
But before the nomination goes before the full Senate for a vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing. The nominee gives testimony at the hearing and answers questions from the committee's members. And the Judiciary Committee, which is majority-controlled by Republicans, could even refuse to hold hearings.
Q: Once the Judiciary Committee holds a hearing, is the nomination then automatically brought before the full Senate?
A: No, the committee votes on whether to put the nominee before the full Senate.
Q: When a nominee goes before the full Senate, is a vote taken immediately?
A: No, the Senate debates the nomination. Debate continues until a senator asks for unanimous consent and move to a vote.
Q: What happens if there is no unanimous consent?
A: This is where things get interesting and where party politics really come into play. If there is no unanimous consent, the Senate must vote on whether to end debate, something known as "cloture." For Supreme Court nominations, 60 votes of the Senate are required to end debate. If the vote to end debate fails to garner at least 60 votes, debate continues, which is known as a filibuster.
Q: So what is the chance of a filibuster on a nominee by Obama?
A: The Republicans currently control the Senate, with 54 seats, versus the 46 held by Democrats and senators who caucus with the Democrats. So the Democrats on their own clearly do not have the 60 votes to end a potential filibuster. That said, some Republicans could decide to vote with the Democrats to end a filibuster.
Q: Are there any potential nominees who Republicans might approve?
A: Yes, there are some names being suggested by observers who might be palatable to Republicans.
Q: What happens if the process is dragged out and Scalia's Supreme Court seat is still vacant when the new president takes office next January?
A: That is a big wild card because no one knows at this point whether a Republican or Democrat will be the next president. It is also possible that the Democrats could win back control of the Senate in the Nov. 8 elections. There are 34 Senate seats up for election in November, as the body's 100 seats turn over in a staggered fashion, with roughly a third of the seats up for election every two years.
Republicans face tough races for Senate seats in various swing states, such as Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And Democrats in the November elections will only have to defend 10 seats, while Republicans are on the line for 24 seats.
(Compiled by Leslie Adler, editing by G Crosse)