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Scalia Death Inquest by Phone Valid Under Texas Law: Officials

A county judge's decision by phone that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died of natural causes and required no autopsy was unusual, Texas officials said, but sometimes happens in rural areas with vast counties.

Within two hours of Scalia's body being found Saturday at Cibolo Creek Ranch in remote West Texas, Presidio county Judge Cinderela Guevara, who was 60 miles away, consulted by phone with the county sheriff and a U.S. marshal and concluded there was no foul play. After speaking to Scalia's personal doctor later that evening, she decided that he had died of natural causes and no autopsy was necessary.

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"I have no issue with how she handled his death," said David Beebe, a justice of the peace in Presidio County, where Scalia died.

Beebe is one of two justices of the peace in the county who are routinely called by authorities to verify a death. Both Beebe and the second justice of the peace were out of town Saturday. Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez, in need of a justice to conduct a death inquest, then called Guevara, who offered to hear the matter.

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In rural areas, a justice of the peace typically makes the determination of the cause of death in cases when no witnesses were present. An inquest by phone is as valid as one in person under state law, said Bronson Tucker, an attorney for the Texas Justice Courts Training Center who offers instruction to justices of the peace.

"The huge majority of the time, if you have a 79-year-old overweight person and you have a statement from the physician and zero indicators of foul play, then it's not unusual for there to be no autopsy," said Tucker. "I didn't see any red flags and nothing to say that the judge didn't follow her statutory obligation."

Image: A Texas state flag flies at an entrance to Cibolo Creek Ranch, Texas, in this 2015 photo.
A Texas state flag flies at an entrance to Cibolo Creek Ranch, Texas, in this 2015 photo. John Brecher / NBC News

Guevara issued a statement Tuesday defending how she handled the inquest. She said the attorney for Scalia told her the family did not want an autopsy performed because they believe he died of natural causes and they preferred not to delay his body's return to them. Guevara said she consulted with Scalia's physician and the sheriff before deciding against an autopsy.

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"I respected the wishes of the Scalia family. ... I did this based upon credible reports to me from law enforcement and from Justice Scalia's personal physician," Guevara said.

Susana Gonzales, a justice of the peace in adjacent Brewster County, said she's never done an inquest by phone but understands there may be situations where it's necessary.

"There's not a procedural mechanism to challenge or appeal the determination by the justice of the peace," Tucker said.

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