Anyone who has sat through any oral argument knows that interruptions can just be a part of the game, whether those interruptions are by judge or opposing counsel. The same holds true in the Supreme Court. The SCOTUS blog took a look at data from the 2017 term to identify patterns. One element that they looked for was if gender imbalances in oral argument interruptions of previous years continued in 2017. In the past, females were more frequently interrupted than males. To identify interruptions, the blog used a script to find each time a speaker’s remark ended with a double dash (“–”) rather than a period.
The results were deemed “hopeful,” even though just looking at the top line, Justice Sotomayor was by far the most interrupted by attorneys and other justices, with 281 interruptions. She was followed by Justice Breyer with 164 interruptions, and Justice Kagan came in third with 160. This could be in part due to the amount of time Justices Sotomayor and Breyer spent speaking relative to the other recorded speakers. Empirical SCOTUS graphed the Justices’ percent of spoken words and found the largest percentage of words were spoken by Justice Breyer with 21.7% and Justice Sotomayor with 16.96%. Justice Kagan was next at 15.63%. Of course, aside from the always silent Justice Thomas, all other conservative Justices each had very similar percentages.
Another possible explanation for Sotomayor’s high rate of interruptions was the number of times she interrupted others, indicating that it may have been tit-for-tat. Justice Sotomayor was the “interrupter” 716 times, followed by Justice Breyer interrupting 482 times, and Gorsuch 440 times.
When you look at only the justices, the picture changes significantly. Looking at the frequency with which a justice was interrupted relative to the number of words spoken per argument by that justice, the report shows that Breyer, who spoke the most, was interrupted the least. He was followed by Sotomayor and Kagan. Ginsburg and Kennedy were interrupted least frequently.
Looking at the data in totality it was concluded that,
The oral argument interruption terrain appears to have changed this term when compared to previous terms. Although overall raw counts show that some female justices were interrupted at the high end of the spectrum, the figures for interruption frequency do not corroborate this point. Looking at interruptions only involving justices, female justices were not interrupted more frequently this term than male justices. Female justices were also equally engaged in interrupting other justices.
Let’s hope this is the beginning of a new way forward.