Nation pays respects to Justice Antonin Scalia in Supreme Court's Grand Hall
People file past Scalia's flag-draped coffin Friday at the Supreme Court's Grand Hall. NBC photo
BY CORKY SIEMASZKO and HALIMAH ABDULLAH, NBC News
(NBC News) - The Supreme Court, which was often divided during Justice Antonin Scalia's tenure, was united Friday in grief over his passing.
The flag-draped mahogany casket of Scalia, who died last Saturday at age 79, was carried into the Great Hall of the Supreme Court building through a somber line of dark suit-clad law clerks who once worked with the Justice.
It was the start of two days of official mourning for the sometimes cantankerous — and always colorful — conservative justice who served on the nation's highest court for nearly three decades.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were expected to join the justices, including Scalia's best buddy on the court — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — and the late judge's family, for a private farewell ceremony.
Scalia, a Queens-raised son of Trenton, New Jersey, was in life an ideological foe of the Democratic president. And his casket will be watched over by the marble busts of former chief justices, as well as his official portrait placed on an easel beside wreaths and bouquets of flowers.
The Great Hall will then be open to the public, starting around 10:30 a.m., and stay open until 8:30 p.m.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, was the last justice to lie in repose in the hall.
The Obamas will not attend attend Scalia's funeral at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, the White House has already said.
In politically polarized Washington, Obama has already taken heat from Republicans for that decision — never mind that he is hardly the first president to skip the funeral for a Supreme Court justice.
"It's important, before we rush into the all the politics of this, to take stock of somebody who made enormous contributions to the United States," Obama said Tuesday, as the controversy was heating up and after the GOP made it clear they would oppose any attempt by the president to fill Scalia's chair. "And we are grateful not only for his service but for his family's service."
The Obama administration will be represented at the funeral by Vice President Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden.
Ed Whelan, a former Scalia law clerk who now heads the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told Politico that Obama made the correct choice.
"I wouldn't have expected President Obama to attend the funeral Mass, and I see no reason to fault him for not attending," said Whelan. "The ceremony at the Supreme Court seems the most apt opportunity for the president to pay his respects, but he obviously might have severe competing demands on his time."
The White House has not said what Obama plans to do on Saturday.
Scalia was a devout Catholic who fathered nine children. One of them, Father Paul Scalia, is a Roman Catholic priest who will celebrate his father's funeral Mass and give the homily. There will be a private funeral following the service.