Advocate Interruptions and the Effect of Experience

Advocate interruptions in theory and reality

“Never interrupt a Justice who is addressing you . . . If you are speaking and a Justice interrupts you, cease talking immediately and listen.”

So mandates the Supreme Court’s guide to counsel appearing before the Supreme Court. And yet, in examining all transcripts of oral argument before the Court during the 20 years from Terms 1998 to 2017, there were 48,461 interruptions of the justices by the advocates.

We analyzed 1437 transcripts of oral argument and found that in any given case, on average each advocate interrupted a justice over 13 times.

Our method of analysis requires some unpacking. First, we should be clear about what we mean by an interruption. Oral argument is a conversation between the justices and advocates; Supreme Court guidance notwithstanding, some degree of interruption is a natural part of any conversation. Following the methodology used by Jacobi and Rozema in their study of the impact of justice-to-justice interruptions on case outcomes, we draw a distinction between true interruptions and mere crosstalk, i.e., the brief overlaps in dialog when two people go to speak at the same time and one instantly yields. Specifically our definition of an interruption excludes any speech event where either the interrupter or the interruptee spoke for less than one second. Using this threshold, Jacobi and Rozema found that “substantive” interruptions (unlike brief conversational overlaps) were a good predictor of eventual disagreement between the justice pair involved, even controlling for ideology.

Second, we should be clear on what we mean by an advocate in any given case. The 1437 cases we analyzed featured 1595 different advocates and 3690 advocate appearances. Even though the majority of advocates were single-shot players, i.e., they appeared only once in that 20 year period (1259 of 1595), the majority of appearances were made by advocates who appeared more than once (2431 of 3690). When we say “in any given case, on average each advocate interrupted a justice over 13 times” we looking at the average of 3690 advocate appearances without accounting for repeat players.

Differences between advocates

We are also interested in the extent to which the advocates get interrupted by the justices. Of course, being interrupted by the justices is part of the job at oral argument, but some advocates seem to receive greater deference than others, are allowed to speak for longer periods of time, and are peppered with fewer judicial interventions. Our analysis of the last 20 years of Supreme Court oral argument shows that in any given case, each advocate was interrupted by a justice over 15 times on average.

In a working paper, we are examining what determines advocate success; here, we look at whether advocate experience is associated not only with tolerance of breaking the non-interruption rule, but also with greater deference in terms of fewer interruptions by the justices.

We might expect that a single-shot lawyer who nurtures a case all the way from trial to their big day at the Supreme Court will behave differently to the Paul Clements and Michael Dreebens—experienced advocates who have argued dozens of cases before Court. To test the difference between experienced and inexperienced advocates, we calculated the number of times each advocate appeared in our 20 year period.

As we have argued previously, a good way to examine the nature of the interactions between the participants at oral argument is to compare the extent of an individual’s tendency to interrupt and be interrupted. The figure below displays those two patterns for each advocate appearance in our 1437 cases in the last 20 years. The dashed 45° line represents parity for an individual interrupting as often as they are interrupted, whether that was a little or a lot.

The figure is divided into four equal quadrants according to the appearing advocate’s total number of appearances in the 1998-2017 Terms, allowing us to see if the pattern of interruption varies with experience. The scatter plot shows all 3690 advocate appearances rather than reflecting the averages for our 1595 individual advocates. The advocates range in experience from 1 to 89 appearances, with a mean of 16.7 and a median of 5.

Advocate Interruptions in Four Quadrants

What the figure shows is that the solid red circles consistently significantly outweigh the hollow black circles—that is, advocates are interrupted more than they interrupt the justices, regardless of experience. For all four quadrants of advocate experience, there is considerable clustering to the left, indicating that even advocates who barely interrupt are still interrupted quite frequently. Thus, politeness does not guarantee more of a chance to speak uninterrupted. But that is not surprising: justices are permitted to interrupt. If the advocates followed the rules and never interrupted, we would only observe points above and to the left of the line. Instead, we see significant interrupting behavior by the advocates at all levels of experience.

In terms of advocates receiving deference, the four quartiles all appear to have a similar distribution pattern; but by calculating the means for each quartile, we see that the rate of interruptions by the justices does go down in the third and fourth quartiles. In the first quartile, with an average of 1 appearance, advocates were interrupted on average 16 times and themselves interrupted an average of 14 times. The numbers for the second quartile, with an average of 2 appearances, were similar: 16.5 and 14, respectively. But in the third and fourth quartiles, with an average of 12 and 51 appearances, respectively, the number of interruptions dropped to 14.5 and 14, respectively, and the number of interruptions dropped to 12 and 12.5, respectively. The standard deviations are quite high, so we must be careful making generalizations, but this suggests that experience results in fewer interruptions, in both directions, by and of the justices.

Elite Advocates

Looking just at the most experienced advocates, we see there is considerable variation in behavior. The figure below shows the rate of being interrupted and interrupting for the most experienced advocates—those who have appeared before the Court at least 15 times in the last 20 years. The first figure is ordered by the number of appearances, noted in parentheses; the second figure is ordered by the average number of times the advocate interrupted, again, noted in parentheses.

Elite Advocates Interruptions by Appearances
Elite Advocates Interruptions by Interruptions Committed

Interruptions by the justices are coded red and interruptions by the advocates are coded blue. The lack of symmetry for each advocate confirms that the justices interrupt consistently more often than the advocates do, but the correlation between interrupting and being interrupted is clear: low interrupters such as Ann O’Connell are interrupted less, whereas common interrupters such as Edwin Kneedler are interrupted frequently. Which way the causation runs, and whether those patterns can be explained by factors such as case salience, are questions that require further research.

By Matthew Sag, with input from Tonja Jacobi



The Gender Effect, Writ Small

There are many ways in which women are excluded from the conversation. Women are interrupted more, given fewer opportunities to speak, and, of course, subjected to mansplaining. When women do get to speak, men tend not to listen—as the old joke goes: “That is an interesting point, Ms. Jones, perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”

The social science literature suggests, however, that women’s exclusion decreases as their power increases. So when my article with Dylan Schweers, “Justice, Interrupted” showed that female Supreme Court justices are interrupted three times as often as the male justices at oral argument, it received considerable attention. So much so that two Supreme Court justices noted its impact: Justice Ginsburg said that the article had got her attention and predicted that it may well affect the behavior of the justices; Justice Sotomayor later confirmed that the study has changed the dynamics of the Court, inspiring some of the male justices to apologize and the Chief to act more as a referee.

It struck me as ironic then, if not entirely surprising, to read a recent blog post by a man, Adam Feldman, that virtually erased my contribution to this area and seemed to appropriate the impact of “Justice, Interrupted” to himself. My article was addressed directly by two Supreme Court justices, yet it apparently rated no more than a “see also” link at the end of list primarily consisting of Feldman’s own writings. For Feldman to claim that the justices were responding to “these works” borders on misattribution.

The same post also underrates the contribution of another woman, Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones. Mencimer was in fact the first person to note the gendered pattern of interruptions on the Court, or at least the first to do so in print. She made this observation on the basis of numbers provided in a blog post by Feldman, but Feldman had not recognized the pattern himself. Feldman subsequently claimed that “[t]hese imbalances were identified” by him, but nothing indicates that to be so, at least not until a woman had pointed it out to him. Only more than a year later did Feldman (working with gender politics expert Rebecca Gill) explore the issue in detail, in an unpublished working paper, written at about the same time as my article with Dylan Schweers was under review at the Virginia Law Review, where it was accepted for publication in March of 2017.

Women are encouraged to be less assertive than men—I have written about this well-established effect in the context of criminal procedure. We are certainly expected not to challenge a man who takes credit for our work. But if we can’t even stand up for ourselves in order to get fair recognition for our work on gender dynamics, then what hope is there?

By Tonja Jacobi


Justice-to-justice interruptions: gender versus ideology?

The effect of gender versus ideology on Supreme Court interruptions

As discussed in a previous post, the Virgina Law Review article, “Justice, Interrupted” (Tonja Jacobi & Dylan Schweers), showed that female Supreme Court justices are interrupted three times as often as the male justices at oral argument. This conclusion was based on hand coded data from the 1990, 2002 and 2015 Terms and algorithmically coded data from the 2004 to 2015 Terms. Yesterday’s post extended that data to include the 2016 and 2017 Terms and the 1998 through 2003 Terms, spanning a twenty year period.

One question that gets asked a lot about the gendered nature of interruptions at oral argument is whether the effect is a result of “the fact” that women talk more than men. It is true that speaking more is associated with more interruptions at the Court. But the common trope that women in particular talk more has been disproved time and again: women account for approximately one quarter of speaking time in the average conversation.

We could, of course, simply normalize interruptions by words spoken, but there is an endogeneity issue there. Interruptions might stop people from speaking, or the interrupted justice might speak more to respond to an interruption. We come at the issue another way: if it were true that female justices were interrupted more because they talk more, then we should also expect them to be responsible for more interrupting as well. But that is not the case at the Supreme Court.

The figure below looks at justice-to-justice interruptions. It shows the average rate of being interrupted and interrupting for each justice serving during the Roberts Court, covering the 1998-2016 Terms, inclusively. The dashed 45° line represents parity for any given justice: Justice Thomas and Justice Alito both sit on this line, interrupting as often as they are interrupted. In Justice Thomas’s case, he sits at the zero point both axes: not speaking has its advantages. Justice Alito interrupts more and is interrupted more than Justice Thomas but is still below average on both and proportional.

Justice-to-justice Interruptions 1998-2016 Terms

Notably, all three of the women currently serving on the Court sit above the 45° line. Justice Ginsburg is only marginally above the line, making her slightly more interrupted than interrupting. But Justice Kagan and Justice Sotomayor both sit well above the line, disproportionately more interrupted than interrupting. It is primarily the interruptions of those two justices, then, that are driving the ongoing gender tilt on the Roberts Court. In contrast, Justice O’Connor sat well below the line, making her much more an interrupter than an interruptee.

Is the gender effect that we see on the Court, then, idiosyncratic to the personalities of the justices? Not necessarily. As Jacobi and Schweers showed, ideology was also a strong predictor of interruptions: in the modern era, the conservative justices interrupt liberal justices disproportionately. As shown in a previous post, Justice O’Connor served on the Court during a period of much lower interruptions overall, and at a time that did not show the same gender pattern. Unfortunately, she has been the only conservative female justice throughout the Court’s history. Ideally, we would have a new conservative female justice to test out the extent to which ideology versus gender is driving the pattern, but with the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanagh to the Court, and a Republican controlled Senate, that knowledge remains out of our reach for the foreseeable future.

We can use the same style of figure, plotting the numbers of justice-to-justice interruptions for each justice, to see what if anything changed in the 2017 Term. As seen in the figure below, Justice Kagan, Justice Sotomayor, and Justice Breyer were still significantly more interrupted by their fellow justices than interrupting of their comrades in the 2017 Term. They are now joined in this status by Justice Alito, who moves off the even ratio line, lowering his rate of interrupting relative to his rate of being interrupted. Notably, Justice Ginsburg shifted significantly in the other direction in that same Term, putting her below the even ratio line.

Justice-to-justice Interruptions 2017 Term

We would not put too much stock in year-to-year variation, but it is useful to take a snapshot of what is going on in oral argument, particularly seeing some variation in Justice Alito and Justice Ginsburg’s behavior. We can also for the first time plot the position of Justice Gorsuch, who is neutral and sits low on both axes, but that may just be the behavior of a new justice.

At first glance it may seem that both gender and ideology are playing less of a role than previously, with one less liberal woman be interrupted more than she interrupts, and one conservative man going in the other direction—but that is misleading. Note that the scale has dramatically increased in the 2017 Term: as we showed in a previous post, justice to justice interruptions are dramatically increasing in recent years. In the 2017 Term, Justice Sotomayor, Justice Kagan, and Justice Breyer were all interrupted so much more than they are interrupting that the gender differential is still considerable. Similarly, in the 2017 Term, conservative justices interrupt at three times the rate of liberal justices, even with Justice Ginsburg and Justice Alito doing their best to even the scales.

By Tonja Jacobi and Matthew Sag

Gendered interruptions at the Court

Gendered interruptions at the Court: Looking forward and backward

In early 2016, I published an empirical study with Dylan Schweers, “Justice, Interrupted” which showed that female Supreme Court justices are interrupted three times as often as the male justices, by both male justices and male advocates at oral argument. Justice Ginsburg said that the article had got her attention and that it may well affect the behavior of the justices; Justice Sotomayor later confirmed that the study has changed the dynamics of the Court, inspiring some of the male justices to apologize and the Chief to act more as a referee.

Justice Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor’s comments suggest that we should see the gender bias in interruptions dropping off in the 2017 Term. A recent blog post has suggested that female justices were not interrupted any more than male justices last Term. Unfortunately, the numbers do not bear out that conclusion.

The 2017 Term was in fact the second most gender unbalanced in the last 20 years. The figure below shows the ratio of interruptions of female versus male justices: a Term measuring at 1 would have an equal number of interruptions of female justices and male justices, normalized by their respective numbers on the Court.

Justice-to-justice Interruptions 2017 Term, Gender Ratio (Normalized)

In 2010, for the first time ever, one third of the Court was female. Focusing on justice to justice interruptions, in 8 of the 12 years before 2010, the female justices were interrupted less often than the average male justices. Since then, in every Term, the female justices have been disproportionately interrupted. In the 2016 Term, for the first time that ratio exceeded 2:1, approaching 2.5:1. In the 2017 Term, once again the ratio of female to male interruptions between the justices exceeded 2:1 once we normalized the data to account for the fact that women are only one third of the Court.

Could Justice Sotomayor’s impression of a changed Court—beyond the apologies and potential interpersonal changes occurring behind the scenes—be a product of fewer interruptions overall? Once again, the numbers suggest otherwise. As the figure below shows, the number of interruptions per Term has been more or less steadily increasing in the last 20 years, and certainly 2017 was no exception.

From the late 1990s and early 2000’s, there were an average of between 25 and 50 interruptions each Term; during the Roberts Court, that number has not dropped below 50 per Term—with one exception. In the 2016 Term, with an 8 person Court taking fewer politically charged cases, the justices were perhaps less engaged and thus less disruptive of one another. But now with a full contingent, the justices are interrupting each other more than ever, leaving the previously unattained 100 interruptions threshold well behind, surpassing 125 interruptions.

Justice-to-justice Interruptions 1998-2017 Terms

Another positive effect that Justice Sotomayor suggested had occurred was that the Chief was changing the way that he refereed the Court, making more of an effort to intervene to ensure interrupted justices had a chance to ask their aborted questions. After Adam Liptak of the New York Times wrote an article on my study, he wrote to me noting a series of arguments in which the Chief had said, “Justice X had a question pending,” redirecting the advocate back to an interrupted female justice. It is still early days, but to begin to test whether Chief Justice Roberts’s behavior changed in response to “Justice, Interrupted,” the figure below examines instances in which Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged a Justice by name and referred to a question, excluding instances in which the Chief referred back to a completed question for purposes of probing the advocate further on the topic.

Chief Justice Roberts’ Interventions 2005-2017 Terms

It is clear that the Chief, who famously thinks of himself as a referee, has markedly increased his refereeing activities at the Court over time, but that appears to be much more a product of experience than in response to my study. The Chief Justice does more refereeing in the 2016 and 2017 Terms than earlier in his chief justiceship, but the trend appears to start well before the 2016 term. Not every effect can be captured by the data—if the study prompted the men of the Court to apologize to the women, then it had a very significant effect, but it is not one that is apparent to the public eye.

By Tonja Jacobi, with input from Matthew Sag