U.S. Supreme Court: Getting a word in edgeways

November 23, 2021 by Alison Tunley

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Turn-taking is an essential part of any successful conversation, and interruptions can infringe the ability to exchange information on an equal basis. Many studies over the years have noted a gender bias both in the tendency to interrupt, the likelihood of being interrupted, and the way an interruption is perceived. For example, Candace West and Don Zimmerman found that mixed-sex conversations were more likely to contain interruptions than single-sex exchanges and that more of these interruptions were initiated by men. Others have disputed such a simple analysis, pointing instead to complex power dynamics and noting that the perception of an interruption is highly dependent on the context in which it occurs. So, parents interrupt their children more than the other way round, teachers are more likely to interrupt their students, and doctors tend to interrupt their patients more than vice versa.

U.S. Supreme Court: Getting a word in edgeways

But gender interacts with perceptions of power and authority in interesting ways, so recent data produced by Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers about interruptions to oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court shed new and interesting light on patterns of behaviour. It was found that interruptions in this context were highly gendered, with female justices being interrupted “at disproportionate rates by their male colleagues, as well as by male advocates.” In other words, women were interrupted more by their peers, but also by those with a lower status in the legal hierarchy. Jacobi and Schweers found that seniority and status did have a limited effect on oral interruptions, but they attribute this to the way that “the female justices [learn] 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.”

Jacobi and Schweers also found that interruptions are highly ideological. Not surprisingly, ideological opponents interrupt each other more than they do interlocutors on their own side. More intriguingly, the researchers found that conservatives interrupt liberals more frequently than vice versa. Being both female and a Barack Obama Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, experiences something of a double whammy here. Indeed, Jacobi and Schweers describe her as having the dubious honour of being the “most interrupted justice on the supreme court bench in the 2019 term”. Sotomayor admits that her response is not always the most constructive, saying “I interrupt back.” This seems to fit with the researchers’ finding that women adapt their linguistic framing to combat interruptions.

Sotomayor has also welcomed recent changes made to the structure of oral arguments in the Supreme Court in a bid to improve this situation. The new system allows justices to ask questions individually, with contributions being made in order of seniority after an attorney has finished their relevant submission. Sotomayor believes this has had a significant and positive impact. Jacobi and Schweers are already engaged in a follow-up study to see if the data support this assertion.

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