Sotomayor reveals why Supreme Court oral argument format changed

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Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Wednesday revealed the recent format changes to oral arguments implemented this fall to the high court were in part brought about after studies revealed female justices were interrupted more. 

The studies, Sotomayor told an audience during a talk on “diversity and inclusion” at New York University School of Law, led Chief Justice John Roberts to be “much more sensitive” in ensuring people were not interrupted, according to CNN.

The justice said the findings have had an “enormous impact.”

“Most of the time women say things and they are not heard in the same way as men who might say the identical thing,” said Sotomayor, 67, noting a larger pattern of such behavior outside the court and in society. 

Sotomayor added that “without question” she had noticed the pattern and had a tendency to push back before the format was changed in the court.

“I interrupt back,” she said, adding that she knew the response was not ideal. 

The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court will use the new oral arguments format this term.
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One of the studies, published in 2017, found that while seniority played a part in oral arguments, female justices were “learning over time how to behave more like male justices, avoiding traditionally female linguistic framing in order to reduce the extent to which they are dominated by the men.”

The new format comes as the highest court appears in person for the first time since the start of the pandemic. When meeting virtually, the justices ask questions in a specific order to avoid cutting one another off. 

That format has carried into this term’s arguments, allowing each justice to ask questions in order of seniority after an attorney’s time has expired. The format has also allowed justices — particularly Justice Clarence Thomas, who rarely asked questions before — to become more active. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor
“And I don’t know many people of color who don’t come into this enterprise without feeling that pressure of knowing that they have to work harder,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.
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Throughout Wednesday’s talk, Sotomayor touched on diversity on the court, particularly being the first Latina to sit on the bench. 

The 67-year-old told the audience that as a person of color, she feels the need to “work harder than everybody else to succeed. It’s the nature of — the competitive nature of our society — where you have to prove yourself every day.” 

“And I don’t know many people of color who don’t come into this enterprise without feeling that pressure of knowing that they have to work harder.”

U.S. Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice Sotomayor revealed the recent format changes to oral arguments implemented this fall to the high court were in part brought about after studies revealed female justices were interrupted more. 
Allison Shelley/Getty Images

This term, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for several highly anticipated cases involving abortion, guns and campaign finance. 

One of the most heavily scrutinized cases the court will take up is a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. 

Lower courts in Mississippi blocked the ban, but the Supreme Court agreed to review those rulings. 

The court will also hear arguments on New York state’s gun permit law that restricts who has the right to carry a firearm in public, and its decision could expand gun rights in the nation.



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