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FRONTLINE: Supreme Revenge: Battle For The Court

How a partisan war for the Supreme Court culminated in Amy Coney Barrett’s controversial nomination. From left to right: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
From left to right: Aaron Bernstein/REUTERS; Claire Anderson/Unsplash; POOL New/REUTERS
How a partisan war for the Supreme Court culminated in Amy Coney Barrett’s controversial nomination. From left to right: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Stream or tune in Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

FRONTLINE Investigates How Mitch McConnell Won the Battle for the Supreme Court

With the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett days before the 2020 presidential election, conservatives secured a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court — and the chance to shape American life and policy for a generation.

Behind it all was a powerful Republican from Kentucky: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for whom Barrett’s confirmation was a crowning achievement in a hard-fought, decades-long effort to transform the nation’s highest court.

FRONTLINE tells the inside story of that effort in “Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Court.” Premiering Nov. 24, 2020. the documentary is an updated version of the 2019 film “Supreme Revenge” from veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team.

The documentary traces how a 30-year-old grievance — starting with the bruising confirmation hearing of President Reagan’s failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, presided over by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) — sparked a vow from the then-freshman Senator McConnell to retaliate, and how he made good on that promise in the years to come.

Inside the First "All-Out War" Over a Supreme Court Nominee

“There’s nobody who’s more focused on political conquest than he is,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) tells FRONTLINE of McConnell. “For Mitch McConnell, the court is everything,” former Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) says.

McConnell has been playing a long game: “McConnell understands implication and consequence better than any United States senator,” says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “When you vote on legislation in the House and Senate, you’re playing for the next election. When you put in a judge, you’re playing for the next generation.”

Drawing on scores of interviews with current and former lawmakers, judicial experts and political insiders, the documentary unpacks how McConnell worked steadily over the years to amass the power to build a conservative court.

Then, it shows how he moved immediately to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she died six weeks before the election, despite refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee after Justice Antonin Scalia died more than eight months before the election in 2016.

The FRONTLINE Interviews

As part of FRONTLINE's ongoing Transparency Project, you can explore 39 interviews used in the making of "Supreme Revenge" in an interactive archive that includes all the quotes from the film in their original context, plus hours of insights, analysis and stories not included in the final cut.

The night of Ginsburg’s death, the film reports, McConnell reached President Trump: “McConnell told him two things,” Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff, told FRONTLINE. “He said first, I’m going to put out a statement that says we’re going to fill the vacancy. Second, he said, you’ve gotta nominate Amy Coney Barrett.”

With Barrett’s confirmation — one of the quickest in Senate history, and almost entirely along party lines — McConnell secured the Supreme Court majority he had been seeking for decades.

“He has been working towards this moment for his entire professional career, and it was all coming to fruition,” Holmes said. “Now was the moment that he finally got what he came for.”

With McConnell elected to a new six-year term and former Vice President Joe Biden, his old rival from the Bork hearings and beyond, set to assume the presidency in January, “Supreme Revenge: Battle For The Court” offers both a gripping political narrative and critical context on the state of America’s judicial system at the dawning of the Biden administration.

Tune in or stream:

Watch starting Tuesday, Nov. 24. The documentary premieres that night at 10/9c on PBS stations and YouTube. It will be available to stream at and on the PBS Video App beginning at 7/6c.

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A FRONTLINE production with Kirk Documentary Group, Ltd. The director is Michael Kirk. The producers are Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser, Jim Gilmore, Gabrielle Schonder, and Philip Bennett. The writers are Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser. The reporters are Jim Gilmore and Gabrielle Schonder. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.