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Get up to speed fast on the giant political fight over replacing Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia's death is kicking off the biggest political fight of the year so far.
Antonin Scalia's death is kicking off the biggest political fight of the year so far.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

If you're a politics junkie, Saturday night turned out to be the worst time ever to be away from the internet. In the span of a few hours, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly, Republicans promised to link arms and block any replacement President Obama might offer up, and Donald Trump, somehow, thought a Republican debate was a good time to call out George W. Bush on Iraq and 9/11.

If you missed all this by not looking at a screen Saturday night (arguably the right call), it's still worth getting caught up one of the biggest stories of the year so far. Here's a guide to get smart fast on Scalia's death and what's about to really matter in the next few months:

1) Scalia's death could lead to a lot more 4-4 ties

With Scalia gone, the Supreme Court is now four conservatives and four liberals. Anthony Kennedy is occasionally a swing vote. But the most likely scenario for the biggest cases of the year is a 4-4 tie. There's no coin flip. The highest court in the land might as well stamp a shruggie on top of big cases about abortion, immigration, and religious liberty and birth control. Instead of a new decision from the Supreme Court, the lower court's decision would be upheld, but without establishing a national precedent.

Read more: Here's what a tie would mean for this term's biggest cases. Here's a guide to the big abortion case the court will hear without Scalia. And here's an explanation of why the future now looks brighter for Obama's climate plan.

2) Senate Republicans don't want Obama to fill Scalia's seat

Republicans' message to Obama on the Supreme Court vacancy: Don't even bother nominating anyone. Within a few hours of Scalia's death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell all but promised to stall any nomination for the next 11 months. His goal is to let the next president make the decision. At the debate a few hours later, most of the Republican presidential field said they were on board with this plan.

Read more: Here's everything you need to know about the fight Republicans just teed up. Here's McConnell's full statement (and more from conservatives backing him up).

Watch: Republican candidates agree Obama should stand down on the nomination.

3) Democrats are freaking out

Democrats are not taking all this well. Hillary Clinton said Senate Republicans who want to block a nomination "dishonor our Constitution." Sen. Elizabeth Warren said it would "threaten our democracy itself." And the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was already using the news to collect a list of supporters (and possible future donors).

Read more: Here are Warren's and Clinton's full statements.

4) Obama is going full speed ahead with a nomination

Obama didn't seem too concerned with McConnell's statement. He said Saturday night he'll send over a nomination: "I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time. There will be plenty of time for me to do so, and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote."

Read more: Here are six people Obama might choose who might, maybe, possibly be able to get confirmed if the election weren't nine months away — and one who almost definitely couldn't but who would be a strong troll.

5) Supreme Court justices have been confirmed in an election year, but it's rare

Ted Cruz was wrong when he said there was "80 years of precedent" of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year: Kennedy was confirmed in 1988, although he was nominated in 1987. But it's true this is a very unusual situation. At least 14 justices have been confirmed in an election year, but 13 of them were before World War II, when American politics looked very different.

Read more: There's also some 19th-century precedent for rejecting election year appointments. Quick, get up to speed on the Fillmore administration!

Watch: Ted Cruz got fact-checked live at Saturday's debate.

6) The stakes for 2016 just got a lot higher

Overturning Roe v. Wade, or Citizens United, in the next eight years is suddenly a very real possibility. The next president takes office with two liberal justices over the age of 80 and, if McConnell gets his way, a vacancy where one of the Court's most steadfast conservatives used to sit. That's scary math for both the right and the left, and it means an old political cliché might be true — this really could be the most important election of our lifetimes.

Read more: Here's why the 2016 election just became a referendum on the Supreme Court. And don't sleep on the Senate, which could flip back to Democratic control and change the math yet again.

7) This is a big test of the American political system, and it looks likely to fail

As if abortion, climate change, and voting rights weren't enough, there's something else huge at stake here: a test of the American political system. If the Senate can't replace Scalia, even with a compromise pick, that means divided government can't really, well, govern. And that's bad news for the future of the United States.

Read more: Ezra Klein argues that if Obama can't replace Scalia, it's a sign our political system is deteriorating. Matt Yglesias made a compelling case in October that American democracy is doomed.

On the other hand: If all that has you feeling down about partisan polarization, take a minute to read Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's moving statement on the death of her "best buddy" and political polar opposite. Maybe American democracy will be able to muddle through.