WASHINGTON — Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death Saturday flips the dynamics of the Supreme Court and undermines conservative hopes for far-reaching victories on important social controversies such as abortion, immigration and unions.

Regardless of the battle between President Obama and Republican leaders in the Senate over a successor, the absence of Scalia tilts the balance of the current court and could blunt the impact of a term filled with controversies that dominate the nation’s political conversation.

And it will affect the next term, as well. If Republicans hold to their pledge not to confirm anyone Obama nominates, it will have a dramatic impact on the cases an eight-member court accepts and decides in the term that begins next October.

Conservatives could still prevail on many of the cases before the court this term, but the wins could come on tie votes that preserve the status quo rather than provide precedents that will shape the future.

On other issues, an evenly divided court would mean upholding lower court victories that liberals were trying to preserve.

If the court splits 4-4 on a case, the ruling simply affirms the decision of the appeals court from which it came, without setting a national precedent.

In some cases, such as whether Obama properly used his powers to shield from deportation millions of illegal immigrants who have long-standing ties to the country, a divided court could doom the president’s chances of implementing the program. That is because a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled against him.

But Scalia’s absence might restrict the court from making a more far-reaching decision about the president’s powers.

In some cases, a diminished conservative majority might hand unexpected victories to liberals.

The best example of that concerns a battle over public employee union fees that the court considered last month.

At oral argument, the court seemed prepared to hand a significant defeat to organized labor and side with a group of California teachers who claim that their free-speech rights are violated when they are forced to pay dues to the state’s teachers union.

The court’s conservatives appeared ready to junk a 40-year-old precedent that allows unions to collect an “agency fee” from nonmembers to support collective-bargaining activities for members and nonmembers alike.

But the lower court, citing that precedent, had ruled for the union. And with the Supreme Court’s liberals seemingly united that way too, a 4-4 vote would mean that the precedent and union victory would stand.


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