Female Supreme Court justices interrupted more than male colleagues, study says

The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech -- but is there a constitutional right to finish a sentence?

Since cameras are not allowed when the Supreme Court is in session, picturing interactions among the justices can be a challenge.

But a new study, co-authored by Northwestern Law professor Tonja Jacobi, suggests it might be more familiar than you’d think.

“Female justices are interrupted about three times as often as male justices,” Jacobi says. 

In 2013, during Fisher v. the University of Texas -- a case about race and college admissions -- Justice Sonia Sotomayor was questioning lawyer Bert Rein when she was interrupted by Justice Antonin Scalia

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While hearing arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was interrupted by Justice Antonin Scalia and a lawyer.

CBS News

“Do you think -- do you think that change has to happen overnight?” Sotomayor said. “And do you think it’s ... “

“Excuse me,” Scalia said. “Can I -- can I hear what you were about to say? What are those numbers? I was really curious to hear those numbers.”

While justices sometimes cut each other off, lawyers are never supposed to the way Rein then did with Sotomayor.

“Then holistic percentage, whatever it is, is going to be virtually all white,” Sotomayor said. 

“And that is incorrect,” Rein interrupted. 

“All white,” Sotomayor continued. 

“And that is an assumption,” Rein said as she tried to say no. “That has no basis in this record,” he finished.

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Female Supreme Court justices are interrupted three times more than male justices, a new study shows.

“Here we have subordinates, clear subordinates, i.e. lawyers, interrupting justices who have reached the highest pinnacle of a very high status profession,” Jacobi says. 

“There are a few strategies,” says Heidi Moore, who runs the digital magazine Ladders, which explores workplace issues. She says all women can learn from those on the court. 

“The female justices just keep talking; instead of saying ‘excuse me’ or ‘this is my time now’ or ‘I’m making a point.’ They just keep talking until they steamroll the interrupter,” Moore says. 

A golden rule of sorts -- treating the interrupters as they treated you -- applied to balance the scales of a workplace conversation.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.