Justice, Interrupted: The Effect of Gender, Ideology, and Seniority at Supreme Court Oral Arguments

Article — Volume 103, Issue 7

103 Va. L. Rev. 1379
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Oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court are important—they affect case outcomes and constitute the only opportunity for outsiders to directly witness the behavior of the Justices of the highest court. This Article studies how the Justices compete to have influence at oral argument, by examining the extent to which the Justices interrupt each other; it also scrutinizes how advocates interrupt the Justices, contrary to the rules of the Court. We find that judicial interactions at oral argument are highly gendered, with women being interrupted at disproportionate rates by their male colleagues, as well as by male advocates. Oral argument interruptions are highly ideological, not only because ideological foes interrupt each other far more than ideological allies do, but also because, as we show, conservatives interrupt liberals more frequently than vice versa. Seniority also has some influence on oral arguments, but primarily through the female Justices learning over time how to behave more like male Justices, avoiding traditionally female linguistic framing in order to reduce the extent to which they are dominated by the men.

We use two separate databases to examine how robust these findings are: a publicly available database of Roberts Court oral arguments, and another that we created, providing in-depth analysis of the 1990, 2002, and 2015 Terms. This latter data allows us to see whether the same patterns held when there were one, two, and three female Justices on the Court, respectively. These two sets of analyses allow us to show that the effects of gender, ideology, and seniority on interruptions have occurred fairly consistently over time. It also reveals that the increase in interruptions over time is not a product of Justice Scalia’s particularly disruptive style, as some have theorized, nor of the political polarization in the country generally arising from the 1994 Republican Revolution. We also find some evidence that judicial divisions based on legal methodology, as well as ideology, lead to greater interruptions.

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  Volume 103 / Issue 7  

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By Christopher Buccafusco & Mark A. Lemley
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Justice, Interrupted: The Effect of Gender, Ideology, and Seniority at Supreme Court Oral Arguments

By Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers
103 Va. L. Rev. 1379

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