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Do Judicial Interruptions Reveal Conflicts on the Supreme Court?

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

If your momma told you not to interrupt somebody, she was on to something that legal researchers have now discovered.

According to a new study, the frequency of interruptions between the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court correlates to their voting patterns. As you might intuit, the divisions increase with the interruptions.

"We find that on average a judicial pair is 7 percent less likely to vote together in a case for each interruption that occurs in the case between the judicial pair in the oral argument," law professors say.

Judicial Conflicts

Tonja Jacobi, the principal author and a professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, stirred controversy earlier this year when she called out Justice Neil Gorsuch and revealed that male justices disproportionately interrupt female justices.

Working with Kyle Rozema, a fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, Jacobi has followed up on "judicious interruptus" in a report called, "Judicial Conflicts and Voting Agreement: Evidence from Interruptions at Oral Argument."

The study asks whether observable conflicts -- interruptions during oral arguments -- are associated with future breakdowns in voting agreements in cases. The authors reviewed data from cases between 1960 and 2015, and concluded that there is a real connection.

They say interruptions reveal real conflicts, although there are other explanations. For example, interruptions could just reflect something about a case that is more prone to disagreement.

However, the researchers say, interruptions are inherent to voting disagreements in more than half of the cases they studied. "This evidence strongly supports the conflict theory of interruptions," they said.

Conflict Theory

Not every interruption reveals a conflict, of course. If one judge follows up on another's comment, for example, it does not necessarily mean they have a conflict. Sometimes, a judge may simply disagree with the rest of the court.

In a study co-authored by Jacobi and Pritzker colleague Dylan Schweers, Supreme Court arguments in 1990, 2002 and 2015, showed that male justices disproportionately interrupted female justices.

In the latest study, Jacobi and Rozema focused on isolated "substantive interruptions." They did not include moments when justices began speaking simultaneously, and they sorted out other differences to focus on inherent conflicts.

"Our theory is that interruptions are a type of observable conflict, and conflict is systematically associated with disagreement," they said.

Their report does not say which justices were most likely to interrupt, but it does chart them by how likely they were "to vote against in cases with interruptions." None of the current justices were named "the most likely," but then momma said some things are better left unsaid.

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