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Women and Liberals On The Supreme Court Are Interrupted Most Often

Male Supreme Court justices interrupt their female counterparts three times more than they interrupt one another, according to a new study.
Posted at 8:06 PM, Apr 20, 2017

As Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch starts his term on the bench, there are many questions about what kind of justice he'll be, but a new study suggests at the very least, he'll be heard.

Northwestern professor Tonja Jacobi has found that male Supreme Court justices interrupt their female counterparts three times as often as they interrupt one another. Not only that, but conservative justices interrupt the liberal ones twice as often as the reverse.

"It's hard to think of a more powerful woman in the world, right?" Jacobi says. "Women who have reached the highest echelon of a high-status profession, and yet they're still experiencing it.

"There's one that we put in the paper where advocate [Bert W.] Rein interrupts Justice Sotomayor about eight times in a row."

It's expressly forbidden that lawyers interrupt Supreme Court justices, but during the affirmative action case Fisher v. University of Texas, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was constantly interrupted.

"As soon as the justice speaks," Jacobi says, "they're supposed to stop speaking and show deference toward the justices, and they would do that toward the male justices, but they wouldn't do it toward the female justice. ... We could have chosen so many illustrations for the paper; it was really striking."

These interruptions take place during oral arguments, which is the only time during a Supreme Court case that the justices have the opportunity to question the lawyers before they cast their vote.

"So you've got an informational aspect where the justices are asking questions of the advocates that they might really need answers to, and you also have this influential aspect," Jacobi says.

Jacobi also found that women on the bench learn to adapt so they aren't interrupted.

"Women tend to say, 'may I ask,' 'can I ask,' or they say the advocate's name or 'excuse me.' ... I found, over time, that all the female justices show deep, significant decrease in use of that polite language," Jacobi says.

And this effort to cut "polite language" is something all female justices have done — from Sandra Day O'Connor, the first women to take the bench in 1981, to Elena Kagan, who was confirmed in 2010.

"I think the most important thing we can do is consciousness-raising," Jacobi says. "I think a lot of women are feeling like this isn't recognized enough, and it's something they deal with on an everyday basis."

The one question that remains unanswered is what role these interruptions play in the outcomes of America's most important court cases.

"So that's actually my next project. ... We've already done some preliminary testing, and we are finding that it is actually quite predictive of outcomes," Jacobi says. "I think you're right — that that's the next natural question. ... But you'll have to wait for Part 2 for that."