Film screening: Advise and Dissent
Tomorrow at 7 p.m., the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C. is screening the documentary Advise and Dissent, which examines the politics behind the nominations of Harriet Miers, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts. The trailer is below.
There will be a post-show discussion, moderated by CBS News Chief Legal Correspondent Jan Crawford and featuring filmmaker and participants from the film, that will focus on what the recent history chronicled in the film reveals about the upcoming fight over Justice John Paul Stevens’ replacement.
The film showing is part of the Politics on Film Festival. Tickets may be purchased here by selecting “Wed, May 5” from the drop-down menu.
Yesterday I interviewed David Van Taylor, the filmmaker, by email. His responses follow the jump.
1. What prompted you to make the film? And why did you focus on the three Bush nominations?
I started making the film in 2003, when conventional wisdom had it that there would be a vacancy that summer. There wasn’t. When a vacancy and nomination occurred in ’05, I thought this would be a film about one nomination and confirmation fight. It turned out to be much more, as we filmed in real time behind the scenes of two vacancies and three nominations (Roberts, Miers, Alito). Those three battles really define the spectrum of how this process can work, at least while one party is in control of the White House and the Senate.
Despite the twists and turns over the years of making the film, my motivation has never really varied. How we choose judges is an absolutely critical, and unique, part of our government. But people don’t really understand it; and they’ve certainly never seen how it works. A broader public needs to understand this process. And they need to know how dysfunctional it has become.
2. Showings of the film have been sponsored by both CAP and Cato. Does the documentary have an editorial angle (however slight)?
I didn’t set out to make a film that was “balanced” in any pro forma way. I did set out to make a film that people could watch and engage with no matter what ideological premise they start from, and not feel that the filmmaker was disregarding or unfairly smearing their point of view. And I think I’ve succeeded in that. Though plenty of people have been and will be critical of the film"”from all perspectives.
Let me clarify that we had a screening sponsored *jointly* by CAP and Cato. That’s what I think a film like this can accomplish"”getting people to reach out across the aisle and, if not agree, at least engage in a real discussion with each other about what’s right and what’s wrong with how we choose judges, and what we need to change.
3. What makes the film "behind the scenes"? How did you get access to key Senators on the Judiciary Committee, like Specter and Leahy?
I was allowed in places where cameras have never been before in this process: the internal meetings of advocacy groups on the left and right, the back seat of Senator Leahy’s car right after he announced that he would not support Judge Alito’s nomination, conference calls where strategy was discussed and determined. And some of our most revealing moments came in scenes that were “on the record” with various journalists, but that would never make it into the reports they filed"” I’m thinking particularly of a joke that Sen. Specter makes to Nina Totenberg, that pretty much says it all about the spot he was in.
I get the access I get with a few key qualities. One is I’m very persistent. Two is that I’m filming with an eye to history, not to tomorrow’s news cycle. This film covers events that are by now history. But as the timing indicates, it’s also extremely relevant. I let people know that I’m taking the long view, and I find the people who have something urgent to convey to posterity, that they won’t get to express through any other outlet.
4. What would you expect viewers to be surprised by in the film?
I think different people will be surprised by different things, depending on where they’re coming from. I think some on the left will be surprised by how charming and open Manny Miranda, the conservative advocate, is in person. I think people on the right may be surprised by how passionate Ralph Neas, the progressive advocate is, especially when the chips are down. I think the story of the bipartisan “romance” between Sens. Specter and Leahy may surprise some people"”and I think the way it plays out in the film will break some viewers’ hearts, whatever their political leanings.
In terms of events, I think the film makes the fight over Harriet Miers central to understanding what happened in all three of these confirmations. It was portrayed as a joke at the time. But it was deadly serious to Manny Miranda and his allies, and their response had far-reaching consequences. I think you can see what really happened for the first time in this film.
5. Your documentary seems especially timely now, with the impending nomination of Justice Stevens’ successor. What do you think is most important to bear in mind from the Miers, Alito, and Roberts nominations as we head into the next one?
The film documents a transition from the Roberts confirmation, which was really a “stealth” or “vanilla” strategy"”a nominee who has very little paper trail and deflects all substantive questions"”to the Alito confirmation, where the nominee had a record he really couldn’t run from. For conservatives like Manny Miranda, this was a triumph: they finally destroyed “The Curse of Bork,” in Manny’s words.
The Democrats haven’t made that transition yet. Judge Sotomayor, despite a fairly extensive record, really pursued a version of Roberts’ ‘vanilla’ strategy. To me the big question in the upcoming nomination and confirmation is: will we have a Democratic nominee who articulates a progressive judicial philosophy loud and clear, just as Judge Samuel Alito and his supporters did on the right? Conservatives have really taken control of the conversation, equating progressive judicial ideas with “judicial activism” or “legislating from the bench.” We haven’t really heard the affirmative argument on the other side for over a decade now. I’m not sure whether we will.
6. What’s the key takeaway message from the documentary?
We want ordinary Americans to be engaged in the process of selecting judges"”that’s part of democracy. But we don’t want this to become such a polarized, partisan process that Senators can’t come together to pick judges that are good for everyone. That’s a very difficult tightrope to walk. But in a way the tension is built into the system. We want judges to be independent, which is why they have life- time tenure; but we don’t want them to be all-powerful tyrants, which is why we leave their appointment up to democratically-elected representatives, who are susceptible to political pressure.
We have to find a way to bring those two things back into some kind of balance. That’s the “message” of the film"”though this is a film in which the audience experiences the story, it’s not a film that beats you over the head with its message.