David Zurawik

Zurawik: Frontline goes into the shadows to show how Supreme Court moved so far to the right

If the Supreme Court is our last best hope to stop Donald Trump’s march toward an imperial presidency, Frontline has some bad news: After more than three decades of plotting and packing by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others, the court has become solidly right-wing and openly politicized to an extent previously unseen.

That’s one of my core takeaways from “Supreme Revenge,” which premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on PBS, another stellar work of journalism and non-fiction storytelling from the best documentary series on television. This one is directed by Michael Kirk, who did “Trump’s Takeover” and “Divided States of America” for the series.


If you think things are worrisome now, wait until this court finds and rules on a case that tests the president’s ability to ignore the Constitutional right of the Congress to provide oversight of the executive branch. Or, given the news out of Alabama this week, wait until this court finds the best case to take the nation back to the days before Roe v. Wade on abortion.

Or, better yet, check out the ruling issued Monday in Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt that signaled a retreat by the court from the principle of “stare decisis,” or respect of precedent. This court looks perfectly willing and now able to upend legal bedrocks to get what it wants politically.


What makes the Frontline report so don’t-miss-it special is the clarity with which Kirk and his team explain how the move to the right came about going back to 1987 and the Democratic Senate’s rejection of Judge Robert Bork, a conservative whom President Ronald Reagan had nominated to the Supreme Court. The “revenge” in the title is that which McConnell and other Bork supporters have been working to exact since, according to the Frontline report.

Critics of television often complain that the medium rarely provides context. “Supreme Revenge” is steeped and then marinated in it.

Think of the angry, snarling face of Judge Brett Kavanaugh during his September confirmation hearing, if you want a sense of what this institution that was once celebrated as a bastion of impartiality and fair play looks like today.

And abandon all hope that this court will rise to the occasion and do what the Supreme Court did in 1974 when it ordered President Richard Nixon to comply with a subpoena to turn over the White House tapes that included the famous “smoking gun.” That’s the taped conversation which revealed Nixon to have been participating in the Watergate cover-up since 1972 — a direct contradiction of his denials.

What Kirk excels at as a director is narrative. Many skilled documentary filmmakers build their productions like in-depth newspaper stories, the kind you would find on the front page of a Sunday edition of a good newspaper. There is a certain logic to such TV and film productions that viewers can easily follow and even trust from years of reading stories constructed that way in print.

But Kirk builds narratives around major figures, treating them as players in a historical drama, which is exactly what they are in this case, even if too many of us have lost any real sense of history thanks to changes in education over the years and our new nano-second news cycles.

The major figures in “Supreme Revenge” are McConnell, Bork, the Federalist Society and Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Kavanaugh. McConnell stands head and shoulders over the rest in driving the court to the right. He’s depicted by the camera as a dark figure, often shown in shadows and fragmented light, bent on revenge, scheming and plotting and forming alliances with those who can further his plan for payback — like Trump.

But there is also a large supporting cast that those viewers who have paid any attention to the civic conversation of American life the last 30 years will be familiar with. They include current and former Senate Committee on the Judiciary members Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham, Kamala Harris, Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, Joe Biden, Alan Simpson and Ted Kennedy. Professors Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Thomas and Kavanaugh, respectively, of improper sexual behavior, also have prominent roles.


Watching the film feels like viewing an especially rich episode of a long-running Masterpiece Theatre production in which the characters are well known to us, or, perhaps, a film version of a Shakespearean historical drama like “Julius Caesar,” where we already know the characters from reading the play. Except the death here is of an impartial Supreme Court acting as a check-and-balance, equal branch of government instead of one corrupted and stained by backstage deals involving a powerful senator, some of his ideological cronies and a president who shows outright disdain for the Constitution.

The production opens with a blood-pressure-pounding montage from the Kavanaugh hearings. The words and images of Ford’s tearful testimony, Kavanaugh’s belligerence toward committee members and the theatrical disgust Graham voices toward Democratic senators triggered visceral reactions that immediately pulled me deep into the film.

As the screen fills with images of protesters being dragged and carried kicking and shouting from the hearing room, the film’s thesis is laid out in voiceover.

“It looked like a product of the deep divisions in Washington today. But it had been decades in the making. And behind the scenes: one powerful Republican senator, the majority leader, Mitch McConnell,” viewers are told by the narrator. “Outmaneuvering Democrats, confirming conservative judges were McConnell’s specialties. Brett Kavanaugh would be his crowning achievement.”

“It’s moving the court to a really very, very conservative court,” Nina Totenberg, NPR’s longtime Supreme Court watcher, says as a talking head. “That’s McConnell’s dream from the time he was first in the Senate — and maybe his dream when he went into politics.”

“Mitch McConnell’s dream to transform the Supreme Court had been his life’s work,” the narration concludes. “Through bruising confirmation battles, he struggled over ideology and power ignited by a devastating defeat and a promise to retaliate.”


(If you think that’s left-wing hyperbole, think again. Senator McConnell is unabashed about what he’s done, for example bragging in a fundraising email this week that under his leadership, the Senate has confirmed “pro-Constitution” — read: conservative — judges “at the fastest clip in history.”)

All of that setup takes 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Give this documentary 5 minutes, and you won’t move away from the screen until it’s over.

The unfinished cut I screened clocked in at 51:23. No matter how politically schooled you consider yourself to be, you won’t believe how much compelling history Frontline packs into the time and how skillfully Kirk traces the arc of backstage behavior by McConnell that brought us to the place we are today with this conservative court.

Typical of his work in the shadows is a deal insiders in the film says he brokered during the 2016 campaign with Trump to have the candidate release a list of judges drawn up by the conservative Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation. The deal involved Trump announcing the pool from which he would select Supreme Court nominees if elected, and this at a time when McConnell was refusing to so much as hold a hearing on President Barack Obama’s nominee to the high court, Merrick Garland.

“I don’t think he would be president without that list,” another dark and manipulative figure in American life, former Trump senior adviser Steve Bannon, says in the film.

As Trump and his minions like Attorney General William Barr flagrantly display their disdain for Congressional oversight granted by the Constitution, some take comfort these days in the thought that the president can be voted out of office in 2020.


“Supreme Revenge” is a sobering reminder that this court, which McConnell put in place using Trump for the finishing touches, will be the one deciding how far the president can go in ignoring Congress.

More important, it will be with us for decades, deciding life and death matters for us and our children.

Think you can spare 51 minutes and 23 seconds to understand how we let that happen while too many of us were looking at shiny objects on all the fabulous screens we now have to distract us from being engaged and responsible citizens?