NU law school study finds female Supreme Court justices more likely to be interrupted by men than male justices

Ally Mauch, Reporter

An empirical research study conducted at the Pritzker School of Law revealed female justices of the Supreme Court are about three times more likely to be interrupted by men than their male counterparts.

Third-year law student Dylan Schweers noticed a high number of instances of female justices being interrupted during oral arguments while working on a term paper in January 2016. Law Prof. Tonja Jacobi, who was teaching Schweers’ class, said she noticed as well and the two decided to begin a more extensive study of the topic. Their research began in summer 2016, Schweers said.

“I was blown away by the amount of times the female justices were interrupted by their male colleagues,” Schweers said. “We wanted to look at systematic … gender interruptions occurring at the Supreme Court.”

Jacobi and Schweers’ study was posted on the Social Science Research Network in March, but will not be published until November. It will then appear in the Virginia Law Review after going through an editing process, Jacobi said.

The study also found that conservative justices are more likely to interrupt than liberal justices, and that female justices are interrupted by both male justices and by male advocates, who are subordinate to justices and are specifically told not to interrupt, Jacobi said.

Both Jacobi and Schweers said it was striking to see that advocates also interrupt female justices.

“When women achieve a certain amount of power, you would expect that they would not be interrupted as much, particularly by subordinates,” Jacobi said.

To conduct their research, Jacobi and Schweers used an algorithm and hand-coding methods to track interruptions in cases heard in 1990, 2002 and 2004 to 2015. Jacobi said the years were chosen to account for variations in the number of female justices and to ensure that the interruptions aren’t a recent development.

Schweers said he and Jacobi hoped the study would raise awareness about the issue, adding they are “excited” by the amount of attention the study has received. Schweers said he hopes their study will eventually lead to changes in the courts so that male justices and advocates are more aware of their actions and can alter their practices.

“What we wanted from this study was not only to present the data, but to raise awareness,” Schweers said. “That to me is the most important thing, to raise the consciousness of both men and women that this is happening.”

Matt Monahan, a third-year law student, was in Jacobi’s class with Schweers, and said Jacobi and Schweers are deserving of the attention their study has gotten. He commended the thoroughness of their data set, writing style and the relevance of the subject matter.

“Law reviews are not popular reading,” Monahan said. “So it’s really great to see this article get the exposure it’s receiving.”

After he graduates in a few weeks, Schweers said he is going to focus on passing the Massachusetts bar exam. Jacobi will meanwhile continue exploring their research topic. Jacobi said she is currently working on a study to see whether the gendered interruptions affect Supreme Court outcomes, and she is writing a book on general oral argument behaviors.

As part of this further research, Jacobi is exploring the language patterns of female justices. She said female justices often use more polite speech than male justices, saying things such as “may I ask” before asking a question. After repeated interruptions, however, the female justices begin to reduce this polite speech to avoid being interrupted.

“(Female justices) are lawyers who have reached the highest point of their profession, in a high status profession, and they are being interrupted by both their equals and their subordinates,” Jacobi said. “It shows that no matter how much you achieve as a woman you are still going to be treated as somehow less than a man.”

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