CBS Highlights Study Claiming Supreme Court Justices Are Sexist

To cap off Wednesday’s CBS Evening News, the network spotlighted a study by a pair of Northwestern University law professors who claim the United States Supreme Court is a sexist workplace based exclusively on who interrupts who. “And at the Supreme Court, women broke the glass ceiling. Now, if the men don’t mind, they’d like to have the floor,” argued Anchor Scott Pelley during the opening tease.

When the segment finally rolled around at the end of the show, Pelley quipped that “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 interaction among the justices can be a challenge,” stated Jim Axelrod when he started his report, “But a new study coauthored by Northwestern law professor Tanja Jacobi suggests they might be more familiar than you think.”

He sat down with one of the co-authors of the study Tanja Jacobi, who claimed that “Female justices are interrupted about three times as often as male justices.” From there Axelrod played audio from a 2013 affirmative action case, Fisher v. The University of Texas, where Justice Antonin Scalia interrupted Justice Sonia Sotomayor:

SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Do you think that change has to happen overnight? And do you think it’s-

ANTONIN SCALIA: Can I—can I hear what you were about to say? What are those numbers? I was really curious to hear those numbers.

But the clip held very little context. Judging from the audio, it seems as though Sotomayor may have interrupted advocate Bert Rein and Scalia wanted to hear what he had to say. The study, in general, seems to pay little mind to the context of what is actually being said. There is a distinct difference in intent between interrupting in opposition and interrupting to add on to or back up a fellow justice. But they automatically jump to sexism.

The claims made by the study seemed to be betrayed by the co-author’s own words. In the Harvard Business Review, Jacobi and her co-author, Dylan Schweers wrote that “In the last 12 years, during which women made up, on average, 24% of the bench, 32% of interruptions were of the female justices, but only 4% were by the female justices.” That means the other 68 percent of interruptions were directed at the male justices.

And judging by the study’s own numbers, a major factor could be the interpersonal relationships between each of the Justices. For instance, according to their study, Scalia had 248 interruptions, but 123 of them were him interrupting Justice Stephan Breyer.

In the report that aired, Axelrod did not push back against Jacobi’s assertions. He does not ask her to walk him (and by extension the viewers) through what the data shows or how they came to their conclusion. He only takes the professors at their word that the Supreme Court is sexist and uses it to springboard into a discussion about women in the workplace. 

Transcript below:

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CBS Evening News
April 12, 2017
6:30:56 PM Eastern [Tease]

SCOTT PELLEY: And at the Supreme Court, women broke the glass ceiling. Now, if the men don’t mind, they’d like to have the floor.

[Justices cross talk]

6:57:07 PM Eastern

SCOTT PELLEY: The first amendment guarantees the right to free speech, but is there a constitutional right to finish a sentence? A question for the Supreme Court and Jim Axelrod.

[Cuts to video]

JIM AXELROD: Since cameras are not allowed when the Supreme Court is in session, picturing interaction among the justices can be a challenge. But a new study co-authored by Northwestern law professor Tanja Jacobi suggests they might be more familiar than you think.

TANJA JACOBI: Female justices are interrupted about three times as often as male justices.

AXELROD: This was 2013, Fisher v. The University of Texas; a case about race and college admissions, Justice Sotomayor was questioning lawyer Bert Rein when she was interrupted by Justice Scalia.

SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Do you think that change has to happen overnight? And do you think it’s-

ANTONIN SCALIA: Can I—can I hear what you were about to say? What are those numbers? I was really curious to hear those numbers.

AXELROD: While the justices sometimes cut each other off, lawyers are never supposed to, not the way Rein then did with Sotomayor.

SOTOMAYOR: …then holistic percentage, whatever it is, is going to be virtually all white.

BERT REIN: And that is incorrect.

SOTOMAYOR: All white.

RYAN: And that is an assumption-

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SOTOMAYOR: And to say—no—

REIN: That has no basis in this record.

JACOBY: Here we have even subordinates, clear subordinates i.e. lawyers interrupting justices who have reached the highest pinnacle of the very highest status profession.

HEIDI MOORE: There are a few strategies.

AXELROD: Heidi Moore runs the digital magazine "Ladders" exploring workplace issues, and she says all women can learn from those on the court.

MOORE: 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 and the interrupter backs off.

AXELROD: A golden rule of sorts-- treat the interrupters as they treated you apply to balance the scales of a workplace conversation. Jim Axelrod, CBS News, New York.

Nicholas Fondacaro
Nicholas Fondacaro
Nicholas C. Fondacaro