“The only power the Supreme Court has is its legitimacy,” Pomona College Professor of Politics Amanda Hollis-Brusky articulates in the new four-part docuseries “Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court,” which traces the court’s past, present and prospective future. “If it loses that, well then the question becomes, ‘Why obey?’”
On Oct. 4, 5C students and faculty had the opportunity to view the final episode of “Deadlocked,” “The Crisis of Legitimacy,” while speaking with Hollis-Brusky and award-winning director and documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter in a discussion moderated by Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr.
“We are at a really serious point in our constitutional history,” Porter explained to the audience members.“It’s really incumbent upon all of us to understand where we are, but also in understanding how we got here.”
In the wake of the historical Dobbs decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the elimination of affirmative action in college admissions and a distinct brand of conservative Catholic justices rising to power since the Trump presidency has caused heavy political contention within the country. “Deadlocked,” which the New York Times described as “nothing if not ambitious,” debuts in the midst of this unease.
During a Q&A portion of the event, Sebastian Tulle PO ’26 asked about the Court’s future following these changes.
“As you mentioned in the episode, democratic politics [will] have to reconcile with a conservative Supreme Court for decades to come,” Tulle PO ’26 said. “What are ways that we can find viable approaches to rebuilding trust in our government?”
Hollis-Brusky suggested focusing on structural solutions.
“You gotta focus on the process because if the process is illegitimate, that is what is going to ultimately lead to the loss of faith in the court,” she said.
These structural solutions, many of which are mentioned in “Deadlocked,” are a way to limit the power we give to a group of unelected people. They include creating an 18-year term limit, expanding the court from nine to 13 justices and establishing a “code of ethics” for justices to follow (every state and federal court in the United States, except for SCOTUS, has one).
However, actualizing these structural solutions is complicated.
“As you mentioned in the episode, democratic politics [will] have to reconcile with a conservative Supreme Court for decades to come. What are ways that we can find viable approaches to rebuilding trust in our government?”
Passing a constitutional amendment would require two-thirds approval from both houses of Congress and then ratification from three-fourths of the states. Passing a statute might seem like a better alternative, needing just a simple majority from Congress and a signature from the White House, but it would then have to survive judicial review by the very justices on the court that it’s implicating.
“It’s a catch-22,” Hollis-Brusky said. “That’s the challenge.”
Despite this political uncertainty, “Deadlocked” illuminates how documentary storytelling is invaluable because it allows us to ask the hard questions and find the truth within it.
“I come from a journalistic background,”Porter said. “I’m not interested in just preaching to the choir. I’m not interested in creating a polemic … always report against your instincts.”
Porter called on a range of experts across the political spectrum to interview, including Theodore B. Olson, former private counsel to Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, and Ruth Marcus, political columnist and author of “Supreme Ambition: Brett Kavanaugh and the Conservative Takeover.”
Rachel Ma PO ’26, who is interested in becoming a documentary filmmaker, was inspired by how Porter addressed her own political biases in the film.
“It’s impossible to portray truth in a documentary without any sort of bias,” Ma said. “But it’s important to have a wide array of different voices … while also staying true to your own.”
Porter ended with a message to students in the audience.
“Things seem quite grim right now,” she said. “We definitely need your voices … we need your creativity and your ability to reach your contemporaries … If you’re interested in storytelling, follow that interest.”
Hollis-Brusky agreed and recalled how watching “Deadlocked” triggered a memory she had a week after the 2016 election while sitting in her office.
“I kept thinking [about] how we were at a time of great political possibility, for better or for worse,” she said. “2016 was this moment where things happened that we never imagined could happen. But that means that other things that we had never imagined could happen too.”
She connected this to the importance of storytelling in shifting culture and influencing politics.
“If you can’t imagine another way, then you’re limited in the actions you can take towards that goal,” she said. “But our stories and creativity can open our minds to other possibilities.”