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Female Supreme Court Justices Interruption Study

It's Not Just You — Women on the Supreme Court Are Constantly Interrupted by Men, Too


Even the notorious RBF (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, if you're not familiar) isn't immune to sexism. A new study, which looked at how often female justices were interrupted by men, found several astonishing — but not surprising — findings. Among them? That female justices get interrupted a lot by their male colleagues, and that it occurs most often when the justices stray toward liberal views.

The study, conducted by Dr. Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers, both at the Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law, looked at two public databases. The first one houses the oral arguments that occurred when Chief Justice John Roberts headed the court in 2015. The researchers created the second database, which looked at how the court changed in 1990, 2002, and 2015 as female justices were added. The study found three main points: female justices are interrupted more by male justices and advocates; conservative justices interrupt liberal ones more; and that as a female justice sits on the court longer, they are interrupted less by their colleagues.

How much are female justices interrupted, and by whom?

In the 2015 term data, the study found that Justice Elena Kagan "was interrupted 10 times or more each by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, and Justice Anthony Kennedy." Justice Sonia Sotomayor has an even worse record; she was interrupted 15 times by Justice Kennedy, 14 times by Justice Alito, and 12 times by Chief Justice Roberts. Justice Ginsburg, who's been on the court for 24 years, was interrupted only 11 times by Justice Kennedy. On the other hand, a female justice only interrupted a male justice seven times.

The pattern occurred at similar levels in 1990, with one female justice, and in 2002, with two female justices. When Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the only woman on the court in 1990, she was subject to 35.7 percent of interruptions. In 2002, when Justices O'Connor and Ginsburg were both on the court, they both fielded 45.3 percent of interruptions. Men were also the culprits behind these interruptions, making up 85 percent of the total interruptions, with women only at 15 percent.

On the other hand, a female justice only interrupted a male justice seven times.

Do the interruptions happen because of ideologies?

The study also found that conservative justices interrupt liberal ones far more often — and liberals don't do the same to conservatives. Seventy percent of interruptions were directed to liberals and only 30 percent to conservatives.

The interruptions happen less as the justice is on the court longer.

As the justice becomes older and more senior, they are interrupted less frequently. Part of the reason may be that the justice typically stops using phrases like "May I ask" or "Can I ask" over time. However, even if a justice doesn't use this language a lot to begin with, like Sotomayor, they're still interrupted a lot by men.

The study's lead author, Dr. Jacobi, hopes that the study illuminates just how much men interrupt women. "The extent to which men interrupt women, and in that way attempt to dominate them, extends even to some of the most powerful women in the world, and even in settings that are rule-bound and focused on process, such as courts of law," Jacobi told POPSUGAR.

Both the study's conclusions and Jacobi hope that the judges become more aware of this issue and change their behavior accordingly. "Increased awareness might lead to changed behavior, be it out of embarrassment by the male justices who do the interrupting, greater assertiveness by the female justices who might refuse to be be cowed by such interruptions, and genuine surprise by the Chief Justice, who in my experience is a very polite man and may not realize that he is overseeing a highly gendered court," said Jacobi.

Plenty of women know and experience interruptions by men in their everyday lives. But at the Supreme Court level, the study argues that it could affect the outcome of a case. "When a justice is interrupted, her point is left unaddressed, and her ability to influence the outcome of a case or the framing of another justice's reasoning is undermined," Jacobi and Schweers wrote in a post on SCOTUSBlog.

Image Source: Getty / Evan Vucci
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