This story originally appeared on Marfa Public Radio.
The Big Bend region of West Texas is known for its enormous ranches and large, sparsely populated counties. 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, the judicial inquiry into the death.
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.”
In terms of square miles, Presidio County is one of the largest in the state. Private ranches are often tallied not in acres, but in sections, which are 640 acres each. Cibolo Creek Ranch is no exception. At 30,000 acres, it sprawls into the Chinati Mountains.
The historic ranch dates to the West Texas pioneer days of 1857. The old fort there was meticulously restored by Houston businessman John Poindexter, who has owned the ranch for more than 25 years. The original owner, cattleman Milton Faver, is buried there in a mausoleum on top of a hill.
I was reporting from a candidate forum in neighboring Brewster County. Officials from all three counties were in attendance. David Beebe, the justice of the peace for Precinct 1 in Presidio County, was there, too. Shortly after 1 p.m., he received a request to handle an inquest for “a dead body” back in his county.
The call came from Juanita Bishop, the justice of the peace for Precinct 2, who is nominally closer, but she was at a work-related event more than 120 miles away in Fort Stockton.
Beebe responded he was also far away, too, busy at the political forum. The deceased wasn’t identified. Bishop said she would find an alternate. In this border county, sometimes the dead body is an undocumented migrant. Identification can take weeks; death can wait.
Bishop contacted the third choice, Presidio County Judge Cinderella Guevara, who was also unable to make the drive to Cibolo Creek Ranch. Connecting with the county sheriff there, she officially handled the inquest — over the phone — pronouncing Justice Scalia dead just before 2 p.m. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedures allows justices of the peace to pronounce death via phone when deemed reasonable.
It wasn’t until after 3 p.m. that the news started to make its way to the local officials at the candidates forum. Phones lit up. People stopped paying attention to the debate on the stage. I was sitting near Judge Beebe, and we rushed out of the school auditorium together. We drove straight to the only funeral home in the area, in Alpine — where there was no answer at the door.
I was still about an hour away from Cibolo Creek Ranch, but checked the gas tank and drove there directly. There was no cell coverage for most of the drive. At the rock gate, one man stood guard, shooing me off the private property. Miraculously, I had a cell signal, and I began feeding information to NPR, The Associated Press and statewide news outlets.
The sun was setting over the Chinati Mountains to the west. On an airstrip to the east, three small planes punctuated the end of the runaway. Few cars passed. One vehicle, from Border Patrol, entered the gates in the hour I waited. The body was sent west, to El Paso.
“In general, both Brewster and Presidio County are some of the more remote sections of the country — and also of West Texas,” says David Elkowitz, the acting superintendent of theFort Davis National Historic Site.
He says in many parts of those counties, it’s easily more than 100 miles to the nearest hospital.
Tammy King had organized a film screening that night in Marfa. She was expecting to see the ranch’s owner, John Poindexter, but he had cancelled after arranging a hunting trip with about three dozen friends, including Scalia.
“Right now, it’s actually a quail trip,” said King, “a quail hunting trip that they’re having this weekend.”
King speaks highly of this luxurious ranch, which is often open to the public. It’s a classic getaway, where movie stars can hideout and take advantage of its miles and miles of trails.
Despite the tragedy of Scalia’s sudden death, several locals agreed with King, who said: “What a gorgeous place to find your last days.”