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Pronouncing a Supreme Court Justice Dead in West Texas

The Texas Flag flies above the gate at Cibolo Creek Ranch as the sun sets, February 13, 2016 (KRTS/Tom Michael)

The Big Bend region of West Texas is known for its enormous ranches and large, sparsely populated counties. And this can be a problem when people need county services, especially emergency services. And it doesn’t matter if you’re an ordinary citizen or a Supreme Court Justice.

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died Saturday in Presidio County, it wasn’t easy to arrange the inquest, which is the judicial inquiry into the death.

At a gathering in Marfa that night, Jeanette Duer, the judge of neighboring Jeff Davis County, explains how it works. "Our county has 2,400 square miles. We have about 2,400 people. We have one Justice of the Peace who does the inquest. If she’s not available, it falls to me, as county judge."

Presidio County is one of the largest in the state. David Beebe is the Justice of the Peace for Precinct 1. He explains how the request for county personnel to pronounce Scalia dead - first fell to Juanita Bishop, the J.P. for Precinct 2.

Beebe said, "The other justice of the peace from the County who covers the area of Cibolo Creek Ranch, where the dead body was found,called me to see if I could cover for her area, because she was out of town. I was on my way to the candidate forum in Alpine, so I said “Well, no, I’m already busy.” So she said “Alright I’ll handle it later.” At that point she apparently contacted County judge Cinderella Guevara, who’s able to do these inquests when we are not."

Judge Guevara was also busy – but she DID handle the inquest – over the phone - pronouncing Justice Scalia dead just before 2 PM.

David Elkowitz is also a government employee. He’s the acting Superintendent of the Fort Davis National Historic Site. "Well, in general, both Brewster and Presidio County are some of the more remote sections of the country - and also of West Texas."

He says in many parts of those counties, it’s easily more than 100 miles to the nearest hospital. Cibolo Creek Ranch is the 30,000-acre resort where Scalia died.

At the gathering that night in Marfa, Tammy King was expecting to see the ranch’s owner - John Poindexter – but he had cancelled after arranging a hunting trip with 40 friends, including Scalia. "Right now it’s actually a quail trip – a quail hunting trip – that they’re having this weekend."

King speaks highly of this ranch in the Chinati Mountains – with its ancient rock art and a meticulously restored fort. Despite the tragedy around the sudden death, she says, what a way to go. "What a gorgeous place to find your last days."

Justice Scalia was 79 years old.


Former KRTS/KXWT News Director