A Supreme Court Face-Off Decades in the Making

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May 21, 2019

Both sides knew the stakes were high. So when President Donald Trump announced that he would nominate Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill the Supreme Court swing seat vacated by Justice Anthony Kennedy, Washington’s reaction was intensely and instantly partisan.

Democrats — still furious that President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland had been blocked and fearful of a potential conservative-majority court — were determined to keep Kavanaugh from the bench. Republicans, eager to seize the opportunity to tilt the court in a conservative direction, were bracing for the fight.

As the opening scene of the new FRONTLINE documentary Supreme Revenge shows, each side had largely dug its heels in from the start. Democratic senators and vocal protestors interrupted Kavanaugh’s confirmation proceedings almost immediately, as Republicans decried what Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called “mob rule.”

“People on both sides of the aisle very quickly took positions on Judge Kavanaugh before they knew anything about him,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of the few undecided senators at the time, tells FRONTLINE in Supreme Revenge, a documentary premiering May 21 that explores the battle for control of the Supreme Court.

“That’s no way to conduct a hearing,” former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who — like Collins — was undecided at the beginning of the hearings, tells FRONTLINE. “I think that the process was not becoming of the United States Senate.”

The chaos in the above scene unfolded in the Senate building on the first day of the Kavanaugh hearings — before Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in the 1980s was made public, and before her testimony transfixed much of America. The conflict only intensified. Kavanaugh would strongly deny her accusation, fight back using partisan lines of attack, and ultimately be confirmed to the nation’s highest court.

The partisanship on display during Kavanaugh’s confirmation process looked like a product of the deep divisions in Washington today. But, as Supreme Revenge finds, the face-off had long been in the making. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) played a key role behind the scenes in out-maneuvering Democrats and confirming conservative judges, motivated in part by a three-decade-old grievance over Democrats’ successful opposition to Reagan nominee Robert Bork.

“McConnell knows the game plan,” the senator’s former chief of staff Josh Holmes tells FRONTLINE, adding, “He can play his own hand of cards and he can also play his opponent’s hand of cards. He knows exactly what they’re trying to do.”

Culminating in Kavanaugh’s confirmation despite Ford’s allegations, the documentary traces McConnell’s success in transforming the makeup of the court over the years.

“It’s moving the court to a really very, very conservative court,” NPR’s Nina Totenberg, who has covered the Supreme Court for decades, tells FRONTLINE. “That’s McConnell’s dream from the time he was first in the Senate, and maybe his dream when he went into politics.”

For more on the transformation of the Supreme Court and the politicization of the confirmation process, watch Supreme Revenge. From FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, the documentary draws on dozens of interviews with key current and former U.S. senators — including Collins, Heitkamp, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — and other key sources. Thirty-nine extended, interactive interviews from the making of Supreme Revenge will go live on FRONTLINE’s website in tandem with the documentary’s premiere, offering firsthand insights from three decades of Supreme Court confirmation battles culminating in the Kavanaugh vote.

The documentary and these interviews offer a must-watch look at how McConnell and his allies have come to dominate the Supreme Court, possibly for long into the future.

Supreme Revenge premieres Tuesday, May 21, 2019 on PBS, PBS.org/frontline, and the PBS Video App (check local listings). Thirty-nine interviews that comprise the newest installment of the FRONTLINE Transparency Project will launch that same evening.

This post was updated to accurately reflect the end of Sen. Susan Collins’ quote.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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