The absence of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will have a direct impact on several cases slated to be argued in the following months, including immigration, voting rights and Affirmative Action.
A 4-4 tie on the U.S. Supreme Court would sustain a Republican-led challenge to an Obama administration plan to allow millions of undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation and acquire work permits.
The court will review whether President Barack Obama, acting without congressional approval, has the power to shield from deportation up to 5 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally and make them eligible to work without fear of being rounded up. The case is scheduled to be argued in April.
Supreme Court justices are also considering changes to the Voting Rights Act that would allow state and municipal voting districts to be drawn based on eligible voters rather than total population. If changed, the districts would exclude undocumented immigrants, children who aren’t old enough to vote and former felons.
Subtracting Scalia's vote from cases in which he was in the majority in a 5-4 split leaves the result tied, four a side.
The remaining eight justices have two options in that situation: They can vote to hear the case a second time when a new colleague joins them or they can hand down a one-sentence opinion that upholds the result reached in the lower court without setting a nationwide rule.
A second round of arguments seems less likely at the moment because a new justice may not be confirmed until the next president is in office.
A tie vote, by contrast, resolves the case at hand and allows the legal issue to return to the court at a later date when there is a ninth justice.
Another case whose outcome now seems uncertain is Affirmative Action. The court in December weighed whether it was time to end the use of race in college admissions at the University of Texas and nationwide. Justice Elena Kagan sat out the case because she worked on it at an earlier stage when she was at the Justice Department.
Scalia's death also deprives conservatives of a key vote that could change the outcome in major cases involving labor unions, contraceptives, religious liberty and President Barack Obama's health care law also now seem more likely to favor the Obama administration.
Nothing Scalia did or said in the pending cases matters to the outcome.
"The vote of a deceased justice does not count," veteran Supreme Court lawyer Roy Englert said Sunday, a day after Scalia was found dead in his room at a west Texas ranch.
Public sector labor unions had been bracing for a stinging defeat in a lawsuit over whether they can collect fees from government workers who choose not to join the union. The case affects more than 5 million workers in 23 states and Washington, D.C., and seeks to overturn a nearly 40-year-old Supreme Court decision.
Now, what seemed like a certain 5-4 split, with the conservatives in the majority and the liberals in dissent, instead looks like a tie that would be resolved in favor of the unions, because they won in the lower courts.
"That's a big loss. It was all teed up and it looks like it's not going to go anywhere now," said Brian Fitzpatrick, a Vanderbilt University law professor who once served as a law clerk to Scalia.
The court's upcoming look at the health care overhaul will be its fourth case involving the 2010 law. This time, the focus is on the arrangement the Obama administration worked out to spare faith-based hospitals, colleges and charities from paying for contraceptives for women covered under their health plans, while still ensuring that those women can obtain birth control at no extra cost as the law requires.
The faith-based groups argue that the accommodation still makes them complicit in providing contraception to which they have religious objections.
A tie vote here would sow rather than alleviate confusion because the appellate courts that have looked at the issue have not all come out the same way.
That prospect suggests that Justice Anthony Kennedy will join the court's four liberal justices to uphold the arrangement, Supreme Court lawyer Thomas Goldstein said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.