October 2018 Term in review — Part IV (Interruptions, continued)

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In this post, we continue to examine the role of interruption at oral argument in the 2018 Term. In our last post, we showed that the overall rate of justice-to-justice interruptions went down in the 2018 Term, as did the gender imbalance of those interruptions. In this post, we scrutinize who is interrupting and who is being interrupted at the individual level. The data suggests that, in 2018 at least, gender is not the only factor seemingly at play: seniority also seems to be an important factor in this Term’s judicial interactions.

Interrupting versus being interrupted: who is disproportionate?

The figure below looks at justice-to-justice interruptions. It shows the relationship between the rate of being interrupted and the rate of interrupting for each justice in the 2018 Term. We published a similar figure for the 1998-2016 and 2017 Terms in a previous post. This is a good way to assess whether someone is being interrupted because they simply talk a lot: if that were true for an individual justice, high rates of being interrupted would correlate with high levels of interrupting. The dashed 45° line represents parity between being interrupted as often as one interrupts. Thus, even though the data is presented in terms of raw number of interruptions, the 45° line effectively accounts for variation in the rate of each individual justice’s speech episodes. For instance, Justice Thomas sits at the zero point on both axes, since he rarely speaks. Justices who are interrupted more than they interrupt sit above and to the left of the 45° line (represented by solid red circles), justices who interrupt more than they are interrupted sit below the 45° line (represented by hollow black circles).

Consistent with the finding that female justices are interrupted at significantly higher rates than male justices, once again in the 2018 Term, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan were the two justices most frequently interrupted by other justices. The figure shows the raw number of interruptions for each axis: Sotomayor and Kagan were each interrupted approximately 49% and 35% more often than the most interrupted male justice, Justice Alito.

However, there is an obvious difference between Sotomayor and Kagan. Sotomayor was once again the most interrupted justice in the 2018 Term, and she was interrupted by her fellow justices many more times than she interrupted them. In contrast, Kagan interrupted her fellow justices even more than she was interrupted. In previous years, this was not the case. Previously, we found that Kagan was learning to reduce her polite language—which seems often to simply make her easier to interrupt—but she had lagged behind Sotomayor and other female justices in making this adaptation. Kagan may be learning to more effectively stand up for herself at oral argument.

The other striking result from the first figure is that, unusually, there are two male justices who sit on the upper left side of the 45° line. Both Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch were interrupted more than they interrupted, which is atypical. Since these are the two most junior justices, and Kagan and Sotomayor are the next two most junior justices, it seems likely that there is a seniority effect in justice-to-justice interruptions at play in the 2018 Term. In prior research, one of us found that seniority was a statistically significant factor in interruption rates—more senior justices interrupt more junior justices at significantly higher rates than vice versa—however the effect in substance was overwhelmed by the impact of gender (as it also was by ideology).

Although we have not yet conducted regression analysis for the new Term, the figure suggests that seniority may have been more significant this Term. But this does not mean gender is no longer significant. We note that Kavanaugh and Gorsuch were interrupted only slightly more than half as many times as Sotomayor and Kagan. Gender still seems to be heavily at play in terms of who is interrupted, even though Kagan is breaking the pattern somewhat in terms of who does the interrupting. (We do not want to make too much of Justice Ginsburg’s lower rates of both interrupting and being interrupted, due to her absence from some arguments. Previously, she was lower on both fronts.)

Advocate interruptions of justices: improvement?

We see more or less the same pattern when we examine how often the justices were interrupted by the advocates. The figure below shows how often each justice was interrupted by one of the advocates, per thousand words spoken by the justice. In contrast to previous findings, there is no self-evident gender effect here. Seniority seems to be at play as much as gender.

When looking at which advocates do the interrupting, we also see less of gender effect than was found in previous Terms. The figure below indicates which advocates interrupted the justices the most, normalized per thousand words.

Of significant interest, the number one interrupter on this measure was a woman, Barbara Underwood. Underwood appeared in a particularly contentious, and potentially significant, case, Department of Commerce v. New York, on the question of whether federal government may include a citizenship question in the 2020 Census. Having a woman in the number one spot is not the only shift: there does not appear to be the previous gender pattern at all in the other advocates’ interruptions of the justices in the 2018 Term, as the two genders are distributed quite evenly. We think that the fact that women can now interrupt as much as men is a great step forward, although technically advocates should never interrupt the justices, according to the Supreme Court rules. This advance is particularly important given our recent finding that female advocates were given less of an opportunity to speak in 2018 oral argument than male advocates.

Technical notes:

Note that some advocates do not appear in the third figure, as the transcript indicates that they did not interrupt at all during their appearance/s.

When we talk about interruptions in this post, we include any time one speaker interrupts another speaker as indicated in the transcript by the “–” notation at the end of the line. Previously, we have differentiated between quickly occurring interruptions, which may be accidental (called “crossovers” to capture two people beginning to speak at almost the same time), and more distinct interruptions, occurring when a speaker clearly has the floor, capturing more explicitly impolite or deliberate interruptions. We do not yet have the timestamps for this Term to make this distinction. Consequently, there may well be instances where the transcript reflects an interruption which some of our readers may feel was not “really” an interruption. That may be so, however, readers should also consider that perceptions of whether one speaker has interrupted another are affected by the biases and expectations of the listener and we trust the court reporters to at least be consistent. We have used the same definition of interruption in all of the data in this post.