Flashback: Inside McConnell’s “Unprecedented” Power Play After Scalia’s Death

May 29, 2019

If a Supreme Court vacancy opens up during next year’s election cycle, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would take a markedly different approach than he did in 2016.

“Oh, we’d fill it,” McConnell said on Tuesday at a lunch talk in Paducah, Kentucky, that was streamed online by WPSD. CNN first called attention to the remarks.

In 2016, within hours of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, McConnell issued a statement saying that “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” McConnell went on to successfully block President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland from receiving a hearing.

In Supreme Revenge, which premiered last week, FRONTLINE went inside McConnell’s decades-long effort to transform America’s highest court, including his “unprecedented” maneuvering after Scalia’s death. As the above excerpt from the film shows, McConnell saw the vacancy as a major political turning point.

“The stakes are enormous because if you replace Scalia with an Obama appointee, then you probably have five justices on the court that are going to move the court in a much more progressive direction,” Jack Goldsmith, U.S. assistant attorney general during the George W. Bush administration, told FRONTLINE.

So, McConnell took immediate action.

“It was amazing to me,” NPR’s Nina Totenberg, who has been covering the Supreme Court for more than 40 years, told FRONTLINE. “I mean, they can say, ‘Oh, there’s precedent.’ This was unprecedented.”

It was a highly consequential move that enraged Democrats, and even troubled some members of McConnell’s own party.

“To not even allow the judiciary committee to hold a hearing on his nomination just did not sit right with me,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told FRONTLINE.

“I met with Merrick Garland. I liked him,” former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who was a member of the judiciary committee at the time, said. “That’s a person who would have gotten 98 votes or 100 votes in the 1990s, just a few years before.”

Ultimately, McConnell kept Republicans in line with his plan. There would be no hearings, no votes, and no formal consideration whatsoever of Garland, which ultimately paved the way — just as McConnell had hoped — for a Republican president to successfully nominate a conservative justice in 2017.

“I don’t ever question McConnell,” former senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) tells FRONTLINE. “I mean, I worked with him. You don’t want to mess with McConnell.”

For more on how McConnell and his allies have come to dominate the Supreme Court, stream Supreme Revenge in full below, or watch anytime on the PBS Video App. You can also explore 39 interactive interviews from the making of the film in the latest installment of the FRONTLINE Transparency Project.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

New Generation of Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Look for a Future That Keeps Them on the Land, Following Their Passion
The collapse of small dairy farms has been changing the landscape of Wisconsin — literally and figuratively — for years. Thousands of family farms are weighing their future, questioning whether they should keep going when the next round of hard times, which never seems far away, could force them out of business.
January 21, 2021
America's Dairyland: The Next Generation
Meet some of Wisconsin's next-generation dairy farmers.
January 21, 2021
Taking Office in a Time of Crisis: 16 Documentaries on Key Issues Biden Inherits
These 16 FRONTLINE documentaries offer context on some of the biggest challenges the new administration faces.
January 19, 2021