On the morning of February 13, the owner of Cibolo Creek Ranch, in the west Texas town of Shafter, discovered the cold body of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in one of the ranch’s hotel rooms. The owner, John Poindexter, later told the San Antonio Express-News, “We discovered the judge in bed, a pillow over his head. His bed clothes were unwrinkled. He was lying very restfully. It looked like he had not quite awakened from a nap.”
In quick, confusing succession, local news outlets declared three different causes of death. First it was unspecified “natural causes.” Then it was a heart attack (or a “myocardial infarction”), which is considered a natural cause of death. Then, finally, it reverted to “natural causes” again—not a heart attack—with one additional detail: According to a local judge chosen to assess the circumstances of Scalia’s death, his heart had simply stopped beating. The confusion apparently arose from a quirk in Texas law that allows judges to officially attribute deaths to natural causes without personally inspecting the deceased person’s body. As a triple-bylined Washington Post report explained last night:
It [took] hours for authorities in remote West Texas to find a justice of the peace, officials said Sunday. When they did, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara pronounced Scalia dead of natural causes without seeing the body — which is permissible under Texas law — and without ordering an autopsy.
One of two other officials who were called but couldn’t get to Scalia’s body in time said that she would have made a different decision on the autopsy. “If it had been me . . . I would want to know,” Juanita Bishop, a justice of the peace in Presidio, Tex., said in an interview Sunday[.]
In her interview with the Post, Guevera insisted that she issued her evaluation of Scalia’s death after consulting with on-scene law enforcement officers, who detected no signs of foul play, and Scalia’s doctor in Virginia, who disclosed that his patient had been dealing with unspecified health issues in recent weeks.
The judge did not elaborate on why she declined to have Scalia’s body undergo an autopsy. That decision is particularly notable given the fact that members of Scalia’s family apparently told employees of the El Paso funeral home where his service was held on Sunday that they did not want the state to perform an autopsy. The same decision seems even more conspicuous in light of unconfirmed reports that Scalia requested the cremation of his remains in his written will. A cremation would, after all, likely destroy any evidence of foul play.
(If the reports about Scalia’s requested cremation are true—and, as of now, there’s nothing beyond a few joking tweets to suggest they are—then his understanding of religious doctrine was slightly more flexible than he let on. You may recall that the justice was a devout Catholic who disputed the validity of the Second Vatican Council, a sweeping set of changes enacted by Church officials in the 1960s. One of those changes consisted of lifting the Church’s centuries-long ban on cremation. Considering the show he made of rejecting Vatican II’s legitimacy, the idea that he would ask to be cremated in his will is, if not unbelievable, at least fairly odd.)
As of Monday morning, it’s still unclear whether authorities will perform an autopsy on Scalia’s body, a state of limbo that has already inspired more than a few conspiracy-minded conservatives to demand more information about Scalia’s demise. According to CBS News, officials are still debating the next steps to take. The justice’s remains are scheduled to be transported on a Monday flight from El Paso to an undisclosed location in Virginia, near the home where Scalia lived with his wife, Maureen, and their nine children.