Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court justice, dies at 79

By Jamie Gangel, Ariane de Vogue, Evan Perez and Kevin Bohn, CNN | 2/13/2016, 6:44 p.m.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a leading conservative voice on the high court, has died at the age of ...
Associate Justice Antonin G. Scalia portrait U.S. Supreme Court

(CNN) -- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a leading conservative voice on the high court, has died at the age of 79, a government source and a family friend told CNN on Saturday.

Scalia died in his sleep during a visit to Texas.

A government official said Scalia went to bed Friday night and told friends he wasn't feeling well. Saturday morning, he didn't get up for breakfast. And the group he was with for a hunting trip left without him.

Someone at the ranch went in to check on him and found him unresponsive.

The U.S. Marshals Service is not investigating Scalia's death, an official told CNN. They are helping to arrange for his body to be returned.

They were present because marshals sometimes help supplement security for traveling justices.

In a statement, Chief Justice John Roberts said he and other justices were "saddened" to hear of Scalia's passing.

"He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues," Roberts said. "His passing is a great loss to the court and the country he so loyally served. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife Maureen and his family."

Deputy White House Press Secretary Eric Schultz said President Barack Obama was informed of Scalia's passing on Saturday afternoon.

"The President and First Lady extend their deepest condolences to Justice Scalia's family. We'll have additional reaction from the President later today," Schultz said.

Scalia's death in an election year sets up a titanic confirmation tussle over his successor on the bench. The already challenging task of getting a Democratic president's nominee through a Republican-controlled Senate will made even more difficult as the fight over Scalia's replacement will emerge as a dominant theme of an already wild presidential election.

Soon after news of Scalia's death surfaced, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for the vacancy to be filled after Obama's presidency ends.

"The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president," McConnell said in a statement.

But McConnell's Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, called for the seat to be filled "right away."

"With so many important issues pending before the Supreme Court, the Senate has a responsibility to fill vacancies as soon as possible," Reid said in a statement. "It would be unprecedented in recent history for the Supreme Court to go a year with a vacant seat. Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate's most essential Constitutional responsibilities."

Major presence on high court

Appointed to the court in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, Scalia was a conservative icon who transformed the court by instilling in it his belief that judges should follow the precise words of the Constitution and not apply a modern interpretation.

He was the first justice of Italian-American heritage and passed through confirmation with a unanimous vote.