Justice-to-justice interruptions: gender versus ideology?

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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.

Click on the Image to Expand
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.

Click on the Image to Expand
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