Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the influential conservative and most provocative member of the Supreme Court, died of apparent natural causes Saturday on a luxury resort in West Texas, Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed.
"On behalf of the Court and retired Justices, I am saddened to report that our colleague Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away," Roberts said in a statement. "He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues. His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he so loyally served."
Scalia, 79, was a guest at the Cibolo Creek Ranch, a resort in the Big Bend region south of Marfa.
According to a report, Scalia, an associate justice, arrived at the ranch Friday and attended a private party with about 40 people. When he did not appear for breakfast, a person associated with the ranch went to his room and found a body.
The U.S. Marshal Service, the Presidio County sheriff and the FBI were involved in the investigation.
A federal official who asked not to be named said it appeared that Scalia died of natural causes.
CNN is reporting that the justice died in his sleep.
Scalia, the longest serving justice on the court, was nominated in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. He was the first Italian-American justice.
He has consistently been one of the court's more conservative members and is often a lightning rod for controversy on the court.
An outspoken opponent of abortion, affirmative action and what he termed the "so-called homosexual agenda," Scalia's intellectual rigor, flamboyant style and eagerness to debate his detractors energized conservatives.
Shortly after news of his death broke condolences started pouring in, including from President Barack Obama.
Former President George W. Bush said Scalia was a "brilliant jurist and an important American."
"He was a towering figure and important judge on our nation's highest court," Bush said in a statement. "He brought intellect, good judgement, and wit to the bench and he will be missed by his colleagues and our country. Laura and I send our heartfelt sympathies and condolence to his wife Maureen, their nine children and the entire Scalia family."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called him a "man of God, a patriot, and an unwavering defender of the written Constitution and the Rule of Law."
"He was the solid rock who turned away so many attempts to depart from and distort the Constitution," the statement said. "His fierce loyalty to the Constitution set an unmatched example, not just for judges and lawyers, but for all Americans. We mourn his passing, and we pray that his successor on the Supreme Court will take his place as a champion for the written Constitution and the Rule of Law."
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz called Scalia a "champion of our liberties and a stalwart defender of the Constitution."
"Today our Nation mourns the loss of one of the greatest Justices in history ….he will go down as one of the few Justices who single-handedly changed the course of legal history, the statement said. "As liberals and conservatives alike would agree, through his powerful and persuasive opinions, Justice Scalia fundamentally changed how courts interpret the Constitution and statutes, returning the focus to the original meaning of the text after decades of judicial activism."
Former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said Scalia will be "remembered as one of the smartest, funniest justices ever on the US Supreme Court."
Scalia's death comes just after the Supreme Court agreed to 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 set to be argued in April and decided by late June, about a month before political parties gather for their nominating conventions.
And in November, the court announced it would review portions of Texas' landmark 2013 abortion law, taking up the constitutionality of restrictions on doctors and facilities that have led more than half of the state's abortion clinics to close.
Known for his sarcasm and combative style, Scalia was a polarizing force on the court and across the country. He called the 2015 decision that legalized gay marriage a "threat to American democracy," said a 1992 abortion-rights opinion "cannot be taken seriously," and predicted a 2008 ruling favoring Guantanamo Bay inmates "will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."
And late last year, critics called out the justice for remarks he made as the University of Texas at Austin defended in front of the Supreme Court its use of race as a factor in a small portion of admissions decisions.
"There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school … a slower-track school where they do well," Scalia said in December.
"Most of the black scientists in this country don't come from schools like the University of Texas," he said, attributing the statement to a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case. "They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they're … being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid was among those who blasted Scalia for his "racist ideas."
With Scalia's death the court is evenly split with four Republican-appointed justices and four Democrat-appointed justices.