News & Politics

The Supreme Court Changed Oral Arguments Because Male Justices Kept Interrupting

Justice Sonia Sotomayor made the revelation earlier this week.

Image of the Supreme Court via iStock.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said on Wednesday that the Supreme Court changed its oral argument structure after studies showed that female justices were being disproportionately interrupted by male justices and advocates, according to CNN.

During remarks at New York University School of Law, Sotomayor said the studies had an “enormous impact” on Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision to become “much more sensitive” about the matter. Instead of the previous format where the justices could speak whenever they wanted, they now take turns asking questions in order of seniority. One interesting result of the new system, as noted by CNN, is that the notoriously silent Clarence Thomas has been regularly piping up this term.

One of the studies that Sotomayor referred to was written by law researchers Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers in 2017. They examined three different periods, since 1990, for instances of interruptions between female and male justices on the high court. During the timeframes they studied, Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and William Rehnquist were the worst offenders, accounting for 44 percent of all interruptions. Meanwhile, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Sandra Day O’Conner were the ones getting interrupted in more than a third of the cases.

The study also showed that ideology and seniority played a role in the interruptions. Conservative justices were more likely to interrupt liberal justices than vice versa, which may have been due to the dominance of conservative appointees on the bench. The more senior justices also interrupted the most recently appointed justices—all of whom were female at the time of the study—at a high rate.

The new rules may have come at just the right moment, since the Supreme Court is in the early days of what promises to be an especially volatile term, with upcoming arguments on abortion rights and gun rights.

Damare Baker
Research Editor

Before becoming Research Editor, Damare Baker was an Editorial Fellow and Assistant Editor for Washingtonian. She has previously written for Voice of America and The Hill. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, where she studied international relations, Korean, and journalism.