US Supreme Court: Rule change after male judges habitually interrupt female colleagues

The US Supreme Court has changed its discussion format because female justices kept being interrupted by their male peers, one of its members has revealed.

An institution steeped in tradition, the court’s customary practice had been to allow a free-for-all questioning session by its nine justices during oral arguments.

But when the panel returned for in-person oral arguments at the start of the new term this month, it announced a surprise change: each justice would be allocated a time for uninterrupted questioning.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the court’s three female justices, has now revealed the change was inspired in large part by studies which showed that female justices faced more interruptions by male justices and lawyers.

Speaking at an event at New York University’s law school on Wednesday night, she said it had led the Chief Justice, John Roberts, to become "much more sensitive" to the issue and to act as referee if needed.

It comes as the court faces a politically charged docket

Credit: Erin Schaff/Reuters

Ms Sotomayor said the studies, including one by Northwestern University’s Law school, have had an "enormous impact" on the court’s workings.

The 2017 study by Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers noted that the interactions during oral arguments were "highly gendered" with women interrupted at a "disproportionate rate" to their male colleagues.

The study also noted that the female justices had learned over time how to behave more like their male peers "in order to reduce the extent to which they are dominated by the men".

Ms Sotomayor said she had "without question" noticed the pattern since being appointed in 2009

Credit: Jewel Samad/AP

Ms Sotomayor alluded to this in her remarks this week, saying that she had "without question" noticed the pattern of behaviour since being appointed to the court in 2009 and felt forced to respond accordingly.

"I interrupt back," she said at the event, according to CNN.

She added that the pattern of behaviour was also reflected in society in general. "Most of the time women say things and they are not heard in the same way as men who might say the identical thing," she said.

The new format combines the traditional free-for-all questioning with a round of individual questions by each justice in order of their seniority.

The change was first trialled during the coronavirus pandemic, when the court conducted its business online.

No strict time limit applies to this new segment, but so far this term the justices have not cut each other off.

The strength of the system will no doubt be tested as America’s highest court turns its attention to a number of politically-charged cases, including abortion and gun rights.

It is just not the female justices who appear to be benefiting from the new system – Justice Clarence Thomas, long famed for his silence in the courtroom – has become an active participant in the session.

Ms Sotomayor, the first Hispanic member of the court, also touched on the issue of diversity on the panel.

She noted that the court had lost its "only civil rights lawyer" with the death of the late justice and liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg last year.

"I do worry that the authorities who are selecting judges are not paying enough attention to that kind of diversity as well," she said.

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