Who is the Politest Supreme Court Justice?

Politeness takes various forms at SCOTUS oral arguments

Previous work on Supreme Court oral arguments has shown that the female justices are interrupted approximately three times as often as the male justices (see Jacobi & Schweers Justice, Interrupted, updated in a recent post). The same article also showed that over time, the female justices became less polite. At the beginning of their careers, the female justices tend to use polite throat clearing terms such as “I’m sorry,” “excuse me,” “may I ask,” “can I ask,” and saying the advocate’s name. These terms are common to the “female register,” the more polite language typically used by women, but at the Court such politeness offers the opportunity for others to interrupt before the speaker can get to the substance of her question. Over the years, the female justices come down to the lower politeness level at which most of the male justices naturally enter the Court.

It turns out that whether female justices reduce their use of polite language over time depends on what one’s notion of politeness is.  This post takes a more granular look at the issue of politeness with the benefit of additional data.

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Two Measures of the Politeness of Female Justices

The figure above shows two measures of politeness. First, the blue bars show how often, each justice says “I’m sorry,” “excuse me,” “may I ask,” “can I ask,” or says the advocate’s name (e.g. “Mr. Smith”) as a proportion of how many times the justice spoke. This is the measure used by Jacobi & Schweers. The line of best fit (the dashed line) tracks the trend over time. This confirms the finding women are adapting their behavior, becoming less polite over time in response to the high level of interruptions of female justices.

The second measure, represented by the solid circles connected by the solid lines, also shows the use of polite language but it does not include name-checking the advocate (i.e., saying the advocate’s name when addressing him or her). The solid line shows that there is considerable variation among the female justices in their linguistic patterns. Whereas Justice Sotomayor was relatively low on the more inclusive measure of politeness, she is the most polite in terms of using all of the traditional female register terms, such as “excuse me” and “I’m sorry.”

Furthermore, the female justices do not appear to be reducing the use of this language: the only significant change over time is Justice Sotomayor actually increasing her use of this type of polite language. For the other three female justices, name-checking accounts for the vast majority of Jacobi & Schweers’ concept of politeness. The use of the advocates’ names serves a similar purpose as the other forms of polite language, allowing the speaker to make clear that he or she is interjecting without launching straight into the heart of comment or question; but while it may be polite and serve the same throat clearing function, there does appear to be a difference in the pattern of its use.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the politest of them all?

The next figure shows our different measures of politeness for all justices serving from 1955 through 2017, ranked by their use of polite language. Note that we did not include name-checking by the Chief Justice when introducing the advocate at the beginning of his or her speaking time, since this is an institutional responsibility unique to the Chief. Note also that the estimate for Justice Gorsuch is quite preliminary because he has only served one full Term on the Court. Gorsuch ranks as relatively polite on these metrics, so perhaps his “excruciating[] folksy[ness]” during his confirmation hearing was not just an act. But we note that because it is based on just one year of data, the error term on this estimate is high and Gorsuch’s ranking could change quite significantly in future years.

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Ranking the Politeness of Supreme Court Justices Since 1955

Unsurprisingly, under either measure of politeness, two of the top three most polite speakers are women, who appear in red. Under our broader measure of politeness, on the left, all four women to have served on the Court appear in the top nine. Under the narrower measure of politeness—excluding name-checking the advocate—Justices Ginsburg and O’Connor are demoted from 3rd to 15th, and 5th to 18th, respectively in a field of 33 justices. Either way, with all four women in the top half, this reinforces Jacobi & Schweers’ impression that Justices O’Connor, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan are more polite than the average male justice, but the results are more striking with the inclusion of name-checking.

Hail to the Chief?

The difference between the two measures of politeness is dramatically illustrated by Chief Justice Rehnquist. Rehnquist was either the second most polite of all the justices or the fourth least polite, depending on which measure we use. Does the institutional role of the chief justice encourage politeness? The next figure looks more closely at the chief justices, tracking their use of polite language over time.

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Chief Justices and Politeness Since 1955

Looking just at the totals that the orange bars show, the striking result is the change in Chief Justice Rehnquist’s behavior. When Rehnquist joined the Court in 1972, he was initially very polite but then he quickly settled into a more typical male level of politeness, centering around 0.1 per speech event. Then in 1986, upon being promoted to Chief Justice, he displayed a sudden increase in politeness (as shown by the discontinuity in the dashed line of best fit). At the time, some argued that Rehnquist became more moderate upon taking on his new role, and the historical data support that: his Martin Quinn ideological score went from an extremely conservative 4.18 as Associate Justice to a far more moderate 1.97 as Chief Justice—a massive move toward the center of the Court (about the distance between Justice Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts on the current Court). Our analysis of the oral argument data suggests that Rehnquist may have seen part of his institutional role as Chief to not only be more moderate in voting, but also to be more collegial at oral arguments.

By Tonja Jacobi & Matthew Sag