Women Supreme Court justices get interrupted three times as much as their male counterparts

Court-imposed limits.
Court-imposed limits.
Image: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
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A new study proves that women can’t escape being constantly interrupted by men even if they have reached one of the most prestigious positions in the United States. After dissecting years of data on speech patterns in the US Supreme Court, researchers have found that the female justices get interrupted at three times the rate than their male counterparts, on average.

In a 77-page paper specifically dedicated to interruptions in the court, Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers from the Pritzker School of Law at Northwestern University examine the effects of gender, seniority, and ideology on how often justices are interrupted. Gender is a powerful indicator. Women have made up an average 24% of the bench in the last 12 years, and while 32% of all interruptions were of women, only 4% were by women, the researchers write on the SCOTUS blog.

Ideology was also crucial, with liberal justices more frequently interrupted than conservative ones. Seniority also matters, but to a lesser extent. Gender was 30 times more influential than seniority, they say. All of the female justices on the court are liberal, and two of them are junior, which means they have several factors going against them.

Here’s how the junior female justices were interrupted in the 2015 term, for instance:

  • Justice Elena Kagan: interrupted 10 times or more by justices Roberts, Alito, and Kennedy.
  • Justice Sonia Sotomayor: interrupted 15 times by Kennedy, 14 by Alito, and 12 by Roberts.

Kennedy interrupted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg 11 times. Meanwhile, “only two male justices suffered interruption by another justice at the double-digit level, despite there being twice as many men as women on the court,” Jacobi and Schweers write.  

The interactions between men and women in the nation’s highest court are not all that different from what many women experience in their daily lives. In their paper, the researchers show various kinds of gendered interruptions by both other justices and male advocates who argue before the court.

One of these is the infuriating phenomenon known as mansplaining. Here’s an example of a situation where the chief justice should have intervened, since advocates are not allowed to interrupt justices:

Ginsburg: But when you take what the President undertook, which was just to use best efforts, that doesn’t sound like—

Kenneth Steven Geller: —Under the Supremacy—

Ginsburg: —this Court would have much to—

Geller: —Justice Ginsburg, I think it’s the operation of the Supremacy Clause.

The researchers show how certain forms of speech traditionally associated with women—such as adding phrases such as “may I ask,” or “sorry”—make female justices more susceptible to being interrupted. They also show that with time, women on the court learn how to stop using such phrases—acting more like their male colleagues—and are interrupted less.

Sotomayor: May I ask —

Roberts: Could you associate a number with “the very small?” I guess it would be the number of students who were admitted with the consideration of race who were not also—

Bert W. Rein: Correct.

The gendered character of these exchanges isn’t just a series of cringeworthy examples of rudeness, the researchers emphasize. There are potential legal implications: ”This pattern of gender disparity in interruptions could create a marked difference in the relative degree of influence between the male and female justices.”

Who gets interrupted more often—and thus is hindered from expressing their thoughts or asking important questions—could “ultimately lead to more conservative coalitions, and potentially, more conservative decisions, and reduction in the influence of women and younger Justices.”