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Supreme Court To Say Goodbye To One Of Its Own

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's courtroom chair is draped in black to mark his death in a tradition that dates to the 19th century.
J. Scott Applewhite
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's courtroom chair is draped in black to mark his death in a tradition that dates to the 19th century.

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will pay their respects to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who will lie in repose at the Supreme Court on Friday.

The first family will not attend a brief private ceremony at the court in the morning. According to the White House schedule released Thursday evening, the Obamas will arrive in the afternoon, after general visiting has begun.

Scalia's death last Saturday almost instantly set off a political clash between Senate Republicans, who asserted they would block any nominee to fill the seat, and Obama, with nearly a year left in office, made clear he intended to name a replacement.

At the Supreme Court on Friday, though, the focus will be on the late associate justice.

This will undoubtedly be a sad and stately day at the court, a day of ritual and tradition. A hearse bearing Scalia's body will arrive just before 9:30 a.m. ET. Court police will carry the flag-draped coffin across the plaza, up the steps, through the enormous bas-relief bronze doors and into the columned Great Hall.

Former Scalia law clerks will act as honorary pallbearers. A 2007 portrait of the justice by the late artist Nelson Shanks will be on display.

The casket will be placed on the Lincoln Catafalque, which was loaned to the court by Congress for the occasion. The public will be able to pay their respects until 8 p.m. Friday.

The White House received some sharp criticism this week for the president's decision to skip the funeral mass set for Saturday but instead have Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, attend. The mass will be celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Biden, unlike Obama, is Roman Catholic.

"The Supreme Court has organized this opportunity for the American public to travel to the Supreme Court on Friday and pay tribute to Justice Scalia. That's exactly what the president and first lady will be doing," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said during Thursday's briefing.

Earnest also pushed back against critics who he said wanted to use the funeral of a Supreme Court justice as "some sort of political cudgel."

"Vice President Biden, who had his own personal relationship with Justice Scalia and his family, will be representing the administration at the funeral," Earnest said, adding later that Biden, as the vice president, had a lighter "security footprint" and would be less disruptive.

Earnest continued: "But given his personal relationship with the family and given the president's desire to find a respectful way to pay tribute to Justice Scalia's service to the country, we believe we have settled on an appropriate and respectful arrangement."

Not everyone agreed.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, while campaigning in South Carolina on Thursday ahead of the GOP primary there this weekend, took issue with Obama skipping the funeral.

"We've got 11 more months of watching damage to this country from a lawless and faithless president, who is eager to travel to Cuba but unwilling even to show up at the funeral of Justice Scalia," Cruz said, according to reports.

It wasn't only Republicans who took issue. Steven Rattner, who led a White House task force on the auto industry under Obama, sent out a tweet accompanied with a headline declaring the president was not attending the funeral.

"If we want to reduce partisanship, we can start by honoring great public servants who we disagree with," Rattner said.

Scalia is only the fourth justice to die in office in the past 65 years, and there is no consistent pattern of presidential attendance at court funerals. President Eisenhower attended the funeral of Chief Justice Fred Vinson in 1953, but skipped that of Justice Robert Jackson a year later. Chief Justice William Rehnquist died in 2005; President Bush attended.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.