WASHINGTON The eight remaining members of the U.S. Supreme Court will feel the absence of their late colleague Justice Antonin Scalia in more ways than one when they return to work on Monday.
A somber mood is expected as the court hears oral arguments in two cases, its first action since Scalia, 79, died on Feb. 13 at a Texas hunting resort. Scalia was a conservative mainstay who was known for posing tough questions to lawyers and for provoking laughter with his observations during oral arguments.
His death left the court with four conservatives and four liberals and triggered a furious fight between President Barack Obama, set to name Scalia's successor, and Senate Republicans who have vowed to block any nominee from the Democratic president, with the court's balance of power at stake.
Court observers said Scalia could have represented the deciding vote in one of the two cases to be argued on Monday, involving the rights of criminal defendants.
With his absence, the court could end up splitting 4-4, meaning the lower court ruling would stand and no nationwide precedent would be set. The court also could order the case to be re-argued after the Senate confirms Scalia's replacement.
With the showdown between Obama and Senate Republicans raising the possibility of a long wait before Scalia's successor is confirmed, the court will remain shorthanded for an uncertain period of time.
The court could split 4-4 on several important cases during its current term, which runs through the end of June. They include its first abortion case since 2007, a presidential powers dispute involving Obama's unilateral actions on immigration policy, and a conservative challenge to organized labor's clout.
The court on Monday will hear an appeal filed by Utah officials of a ruling by the state's top court in favor of Edward Strieff, who was convicted on drug charges. The state Supreme Court ruled that evidence presented by prosecutors against Strieff was inadmissible because it violated his right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment.
Scalia was in the majority in two 5-4 rulings in recent years backing police in similar cases.
"Scalia's vote might have been critical," George Washington University Law School professor Orin Kerr said of the Strieff case.
Strieff was convicted of methamphetamine possession and a related drug charge after his vehicle was stopped by police.
His lawyers contend Strieff's Fourth Amendment rights were violated because although there was a warrant issued for his arrest at the time of the search, the police officer did not know that when he stopped Strieff's vehicle.
Before hearing Strieff's case, the justices will consider a dispute between a federal contractor and the U.S. government. The first lawyer due to step up the lectern on Monday will be Thomas Saunders of the Wilmer Hale law firm, representing the contractor.
"I expect the justices will be in a somber mood as they mourn the passing of a valued colleague. My job is simply to stay focused and go forward, with respect for the moment and the loss that has occurred," Saunders said.
Carter Phillips of the firm Sidley Austin, arguing a patent case on Tuesday, predicted the tone would be different than usual. "I think there is some chance that there will be fewer questions and almost certainly fewer laughs," said Phillips, who has argued previous cases before the court.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)