6 FRONTLINE Documentaries for Supreme Court-Watchers

October 15, 2019
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by Karen Pinchin Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism Fellowship
Zoe Todd Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

On Tues., Dec. 6, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 to uphold the conviction in "United States v. Salman," a victory for federal prosecutors who police wrongdoing on Wall Street. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Supreme Court justices sat down for the new term earlier this month, facing a docket packed with divisive issues: immigration, health care, the environment.

October also marks a year since Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court, tilting it toward a conservative ideology. FRONTLINE’s documentary Supreme Revenge chronicles the battle for political control of the court, culminating in the controversial nomination of Kavanaugh.

Though the final Supreme Court lineup is still taking shape, it’s clear a range of contentious cases will compete for your attention this fall. To prepare, we recommend brushing up on the issues with six FRONTLINE films — some recent, some from our archives — for a closer look at these historical debates. 

Environment

The case: County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund
Oral arguments: Nov. 6
In February 1973, as Maui County reviewed plans for its new wastewater plant, consultant Michael Chun predicted that some contaminated water injected into the plant’s wells would eventually seep into the ocean via groundwater. If handling 2.8 millions of gallons of effluent a day, the wells would leak about 3,500 gallons — equivalent to 800 permanently running garden hoses — into the nearby ocean.

In this case, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, along with three other non-profits, is suing the county over the discharges, which it claims violate the Clean Water Act. They maintain that the county must obtain an exception permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. Federal protections of wastewater discharge were first regulated in the 1972 CWA; this case could have ramifications on federal protections of water.

The doc: Poisoned Waters (2009) 
Watch for: In early scenes, this film details the origin story of the Environmental Protection Agency and the mandate of the Clean Water Act. “Collectively, we don’t care enough,” reporter Tom Horton told FRONTLINE’s Hedrick Smith.

Other environmental cases to look for this session include Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian on Dec. 3, as well as a battery of climate change and pipeline-related cases that could be added to the docket.

Gun rights

The case: NY State Rifle & Pistol vs. New York
Oral arguments:
Dec. 2
The first significant Second Amendment argument to make it to the Supreme Court in nearly a decade, this case hinges on a New York City statute that formerly prohibited handgun license-holders from transporting those guns within the city and outside city limits.

Since this was filed, the city and state of New York changed the contested regulations and say that the case is now moot.

Kavanaugh has been strongly supported by the National Rifle Association, so the outcome of this case — which could have implications on legal questions about rights to carry guns outside a home — will be closely watched across the country. 

The doc: Gunned Down (2015)
Watch for: An intricate rehashing of the NRA’s origins and the fractious Washington battles over federal gun legislation and the right to bear arms, notably under the Obama administration. “Victory builds the next victory, defeat builds the next defeat,” Larry Pratt, the then-head of lobby group Gun Owners of America, told FRONTLINE. “We can’t ever afford to lose one, because then we’ve lost something tangible and essential to the definition of being an American.”

Puerto Rico

The cases: Financial Oversight Board v. Aurelius Investment, Aurelius Investment v. Puerto Rico, Official Committee of Debtors v. Aurelius Investment, United States v. Aurelius Investment, Utier v. Financial Oversight Bd.
Oral arguments: Oct. 15
Created in 2016 to assist Puerto Rico with its near-total financial collapse, the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico remains a profoundly controversial institution on the island. In these grouped cases, the Supreme Court will decide whether the 2016 appointment of the board’s seven voting members — who are selected by the president — was unconstitutional because they were not confirmed by the Senate.

This past summer, the Trump administration encouraged the Supreme Court to hear the case, arguing that an earlier appeals court ruling in Boston had “simultaneously imperiled Puerto Rico’s recovery from the worst fiscal crisis in its history and cast substantial doubt on the constitutionality of territorial self-governance.”

The doc: Blackout in Puerto Rico (2018)
Watch for: How the collapse of Puerto Rico’s power grid is directly linked to the financial oversight of the island, and the role played by bond holders and American banks in its financial crisis. Bonus points for watchers who pay particular attention to then-governor Ricardo Rossello, who would later be ousted by outraged protestors after private chats — including harsh comments on those killed by Hurricane Maria — leaked to the press.

Dreamers

The cases: Dept. of Homeland Security v. Regents of University of California; Trump, President of U.S. v. NAACP; McAleenan v. Vidal
Oral arguments: Nov. 11
Started in 2012 by the Obama administration, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals allowed children who had been brought into the United States illegally an opportunity to defer deportation and apply for renewable two-year work permits. In Sept. 2017, then-attorney general Jeff Sessions ordered the Department of Homeland Security to revoke the policy, citing it as “inconsistent with the Constitution’s separation of powers.”

These three combined Supreme Court cases will aim to determine whether the DHS decision to wind down DACA was lawful, and if that is “judicially reviewable.”

The doc: Zero Tolerance (2019)
Watch for: This fall, FRONTLINE will run a suite of three films focused on immigration, the U.S.–Mexico border and the heated political battles in Washington over those issues. Zero Tolerance takes viewers behind the scenes to show how Steve Miller, Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon strategically capitalized on what they saw as unsatisfied anger over Obama-era immigration policies.

Zero Tolerance premieres on Oct. 22.

Abortion

The cases: June Medical Services LLC v. Gee, Gee v. June Medical Services LLC
Oral arguments: Not set
This case out of Louisiana centers on operating standards for abortion clinics, which could end up being prohibitively expensive for some centers. The last-minute docket addition will lay bare the Supreme Court’s ideological leaning, as judges in 2016 struck down a near-identical law from Texas — before Trump-appointed Justices Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh joined the court.

The doc: The Abortion Divide (2019)
Watch for: Thirty-six years after FRONTLINE released Abortion Clinic, an award-winning documentary about a city torn on abortion, the film’s producer returned to Pennsylvania to find a community more bitterly divided than ever. His new film, The Abortion Divide, examines one of America’s most-debated issues through the eyes of women coping with unexpected pregnancies.

Retirement

The cases: Intel Corp. Investment Policy Committee v. Sulyma; Thole v. U.S. Bank, N.A.; Retirement Plans Committee of IBM v. Jander
Oral argument: Dec. 4
The case is based on a 2014 lawsuit by Christopher Sulyma against Intel, his former employer. Sulyma alleges an investment committee at Intel mismanaged his retirement accounts by making poor investment choices; the company argued Sulyma waited too long to raise his concerns, running out a three-year limitation period under ERISA. The Supreme Court will decide whether the limitation period applies.

Two days later, the court will hear the case of Larry Jander, who invested in an employee stock option retirement plan managed by IBM. When IBM’s stock price fell by more than $12 per share five years ago, Jander alleged the company had violated ERISA. The act states a retirement plan fiduciary must carry out its duties with “care, skill, prudence, and diligence.” The Supreme Court will decide whether to uphold a decision by a lower court.

The court will also adjudicate a case involving U.S. Bank and its defined benefit pension plan. James Thole and Sherry Smith sued U.S. Bank in 2014, alleging it had violated ERISA and caused significant losses to their retirement savings. U.S. Bank at first argued Smith and Thole didn’t raise the complaint in time — but when their accounts became overfunded the same year, the bank argued neither Thole nor Smith ultimately suffered any financial loss and asked for the case to be dismissed. The Supreme Court will decide whether Thole and Smith can still sue U.S. Bank under ERISA, without demonstrating a financial loss.

The doc: Retirement Gamble (2013)
Watch for: FRONTLINE delves into the business of retirement in America, examining the evolution of pension plans into high-risk, high-reward models and what that means for U.S. workers. Retirement Gamble won a 2014 Emmy Award for outstanding business and economic reporting.

Health care

The cases: Maine Community Health Options v. U.S.; Moda Health Plan, Inc. v. U.S.; Land of Lincoln Mutual Health v. U.S.
Oral arguments: Dec. 10
In December, the court will consider a bundle of three cases involving Section 1342 of the Affordable Care Act. The section in 2010 established risk corridors to incentivize health insurers to join its public exchange program by mitigating unexpected costs. The program redistributed money from thriving to struggling public exchange issuers that joined the program; however, it did not collect enough cash to pay for shortfalls. As a result, a group of health insurers that participated in the program say they are owed more than $12 billion.

Congress in 2014 blocked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from using additional resources to foot the bill, effectively preventing the department from paying what it owes. The move triggered a number of lawsuits by health insurers against the federal government, which then escalated to the Supreme Court.

The court will decide whether Congress’ 2014 provision can override the pre-existing payment obligation to health insurers. 

The doc: Sick Around America (2009)
Watch for: Billed as a road trip through the country’s health care system, Sick Around America presents the stories of people grappling with expensive health care and unreliable insurance. From a man bankrupted by medical bills, to an ambitious student who traded his dreams for a health care plan, Sick Around America investigates the cost of falling ill in America.

Released 2009, the film sets the stage for Obama-era health care reforms — which triggered a number of lawsuits now before the Supreme Court.

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