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How Justice Antonin Scalia's funeral became political

Justice Antonin Scalia's chair draped in black.
Justice Antonin Scalia's chair draped in black.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Barack Obama provoked the ire of conservatives this week after the White House announced the president would not be attending Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's funeral Saturday.

Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will pay their respects on Friday, when Scalia's body is scheduled to lie in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court building. Vice President Joe Biden is planning to attend the funeral in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Saturday. Scalia died at a private Texas ranch last Saturday.

Conservatives in the media were quick to call Obama's pending absence "shameful." University of Chicago political science professor Charles Lipson compared the decision not to attend Scalia's funeral to Obama's absence at Margaret Thatcher's funeral in 2013 in a column on RealClearPolitics.

Lipson wrote:

On these somber, formal occasions, the president is called upon to represent our country as the head of state. He is not representing his party, his political agenda, or himself personally. He is representing our country—or at least he should be. On Saturday, it is his duty to mourn a man who sat on the Supreme Court for decades. He is shirking that duty.

This sentiment resonated among right-wing politicos, who saw Scalia as a bastion of conservative sense in the nation's highest court.

Sean Hannity's staff published a list of other funerals, including those of two military veterans, that the president also did not attend.

Jeb Bush's spokesperson Tim Miller chimed in, agreeing with a post from MSNBC's Christopher Hayes that said, "Some amazing advice my mom gave me once: 'If you're wondering whether you should go to the funeral, you should go to the funeral.'"

Obama is not the first president to skip a justice's funeral. While President George W. Bush attended and gave a eulogy for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, President Bill Clinton did not attend those for Justices Harry Blackmun or Lewis F. Powell Jr. However, Clinton did attend the funerals of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William Brennan Jr.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reiterated the president's decision to forgo the funeral Thursday, noting Biden's personal relationship with Scalia and his wife.

"There's so much rancor in politics and partisanship that we allow ourselves to get drawn into different corners to the extent that some people actually want to use the funeral of a Supreme Court justice as some sort of political cudgel," Earnest said. "The president doesn't think that is appropriate, and, in fact, what the president thinks is appropriate is respectfully paying tribute to high-profile patriotic American citizens, even when you don't agree on all the issues. And that's what he's going to do."

Scalia's death was very political, and so is his funeral

The partisanship discourse around Scalia's death has fueled much of the anger surrounding Scalia's funeral, with many calling it an overt show of Obama's personal bias.

Republicans in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have publicly called for Obama to leave the appointment of the next Supreme Court justice to the next elected president. McConnell said the Senate would block consideration of Obama's pick. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has also suggested that the next president should choose a justice.

Scalia's death means the loss of a conservative justice on the stand, and the prospect of a replacement under Obama has made many conservatives uneasy, especially as the Court stands to make multiple high-profile decisions on immigration, abortion, union dues, and affirmative action.

Los Angeles Times columnist Michael McGough called the White House's announcement a "dumb political move."

"By attending the funeral Obama would have underscored the importance of nonpartisanship when it comes to the court," McGough writes. "That could only have helped him make the case that the Republican-controlled Senate has a duty to give fair consideration to the person he nominates to succeed Scalia."

However, according to reporting from Politico, people close to Scalia's family said the president was making the right move and that Friday was a more appropriate time for his presence. On Thursday, Earnest said the president feels he and and Biden have settled on the most "respectful arrangement" for the funeral.