In 2021, AFI Docs honored her with the Guggenheim Symposium, bestowed upon the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time, including Laura Poitras, Stanley Nelson, Alex Gibney, Errol Morris and Albert Maysles.
It celebrated her career of “Gideon’s Army” (2014), “Trapped” (2016), “Bobby Kennedy for President” (2018), “John Lewis: Good Trouble” (2020), “The Way I See It” (2020) and “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer” (2021).
Now, prolific documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter delivers her latest work, “Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court,” a four-episode docuseries that premieres this Friday night on Showtime.
“The court’s power comes from us, it comes from the people, it comes from our ability to obey and abide by decisions,” Porter told WTOP. “That’s why I wanted to make this: to say that we need to understand what is happening and how we got here, so that’s why I’m really happy Showtime gave us four hours to trace our history and talk about where we’ve been, where we’re going and where we are.”
As a graduate of Georgetown Law School, the legal system has long been a subject that fascinates her.
“I moved to Washington, like many people in your audience, right out of college and I was all bright-eyed and excited about being in the nation’s capital,” Porter said. “I lived on Capitol Hill on East Capitol Street. Georgetown Law is over by Union Station, so I used to walk past the court every day on my way to school … We are lucky to see where all the decisions affecting our country are made and be reminded of our history on a daily basis.”
Episode 1 (“The Hearts of Men Can Be Changed”) explores President Dwight Eisenhower’s appointment of Chief Justice Earl Warren, best known for the Warren Commission after the JFK assassination but who also presided over landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Ed and Loving v. Virginia. It also does a deep dive on the first Black justice, Thurgood Marshall, who studied at Howard University before launching the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“The Warren Court is what most people thought of until today: that gave us Brown v. Board of Ed, Miranda warnings, the right to an attorney; I wanted to start there because we don’t have enough good news,” Porter said. “When you think of the legacy of Thurgood Marshall: Marshall won 29 of 32 cases that he argued before the court before he became a justice. He is literally the architect of desegregation … Brown v. Board was a 9-0 decision.”
Episode 2 (“A Conservative Revolution”) airs next week on Friday, Sept. 29, exploring the conservative backlash to the Warren Court. In this chapter, President Richard Nixon vows to undo the court’s progressive decisions from the Civil Rights Movement, while also disagreeing with Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion in a 7-2 decision.
“Nixon literally campaigns on undoing the Warren court decisions,” Porter said. “He goes around saying the Warren court has moved too quickly, has gone too far left and he’s going to appoint justices that are going to roll back the clock … Richard Nixon gets four [appointments] … He does support abortion in some cases — we have the audio in the series — he says when there’s a black and a white, he can see there’s a reason for abortions.”
Episode 3 (“The Rule of Five”) airs on Friday, Oct. 6, exploring the Supreme Court during the 1980s, including Ronald Reagan appointing Justice Anthony Kennedy and the first female confirmation of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. As we move through the 1990s, we see Chief Justice William Rehnquist preside over the monumental decision of Bush v. Gore in the 2000 presidential election, teeing up the post-9/11 era of the Patriot Act.
“In the (last) two episodes, the things I want people to really focus on are the rise of The Federalist Society and how The Federalist Society has become the entity that grooms and delivers justices,” Porter said. “When we were looking back at Bush v. Gore, Kavanaugh, Barrett and Roberts were all working to get President Bush elected. Is that illegal? No. Is that unethical? No. Is it interesting? Yes, when people say they don’t have political affiliations.”
It wraps on Friday, Oct. 13 with Episode 4 (“Crisis of Legitimacy”), exploring the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It also juxtaposes how Justice Antonin Scalia died in Feb. 2016, but Republicans blocked President Barack Obama from appointing Merrick Garland, claiming 263 days was too close to the election, then allowed President Donald Trump to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Amy Coney Barrett just 23 days before the 2020 election.
“The Supreme Court confirmation process got really political after Robert Bork was not confirmed (in 1987); Republicans got very angry and Mitch McConnell takes to the well of the Senate and says, ‘I won’t confirm any more liberal (justices),'” Porter said. “When he was president, Trump literally hands over his decisions about who’s going over to the court to The Federalist Society — and they very determinatively pick people.”
In the end, the series leaves us with a warning from both liberal and conservative pundits.
“What we’re seeing today in politics is an anomaly, this is the time that is out of step with history,” Porter said. “Before, a Richard Nixon, an Al Gore, they accept things they disagree with even if they think they’re unfair, and that’s how our democracy continues … We’re seeing the opposite today … All of the people we spoke to, regardless of their personal political beliefs, they’re all concerned about what they’re seeing today.”