Study: Centuries-Old Male-Dominated Institution That Just Ended Right to Abortion Care Is Sexist In Other Ways, Too
New research shows that the justices likeliest to interrupt women lawyers are exactly who you’d think would be likeliest to interrupt women lawyers.
In the cloistered world of Supreme Court litigation practice, oral argument is supposed to be the ultimate test of a lawyer’s mettle. For anywhere between 30 minutes to well over an hour, advocates stand alone before the justices, deftly parrying pointed questions and navigating byzantine hypotheticals in an unwaveringly polite tone. Because time is so scarce, interruptions from the justices are frequent and expected; official Court guidance even warns advocates that if a justice breaks in, they should “cease talking immediately and listen.” Often, lawyers will preface their response with polite thanks to whoever just cut them off mid-sentence.
In theory, these interruptions are an integral part of the lawmaking process: Through the ritual of oral argument, the country’s nine wisest lawyers engage in a warp-speed proxy debate with one another, teasing out the most important issues in the high-stakes cases they will eventually decide. But in reality, interruptions during Supreme Court oral argument are part of an even older time-honored tradition: dudes in positions of power who love hearing the sound of their own voice.
This is, more or less, the conclusion of a recent study by a group of researchers at UMass Amherst and Williams College, who examined the oral argument transcripts of some 3500 Supreme Court cases decided between 1982 and 2019 to figure out which lawyers are getting interrupted most often, and who is doing the interrupting. On the whole, the researchers found, justices interrupt advocates about 25 percent of the time. But the justices—all of them—interrupt female lawyers more often than they interrupt male lawyers, and male justices interrupt female lawyers more often than female justices.
Even after accounting for other possibly relevant factors—a lawyer’s experience, their speech fluidity, and the perceived alignment between their argument and a given justice’s ideology—gender is “the primary factor driving interruption behavior among most justices,” the authors conclude.
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