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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

How one woman on the US Supreme Court fought for her rights

Article by: Vicky Tsouiki

The story of US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

It was mid-October 2021 when Sonia Sotomayor, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, entered the doors of the New York University School of Law. She was about to announce a ground-breaking administrative rule change in the Courts’ structure of oral arguments that would enter the history books as a crucial step towards gender equality: Justices may ask questions individually, in order of seniority, after an attorney has finished speaking. What sounds mundane is a rule to protect female Justices from being interrupted by male Justices and attorneys. Does a rule change, happening at such a high institutional level, indicate that we are moving slowly towards a broader legislative reform that supports women in public forums and the workplace, or is there more to be done? And why was this rule necessary in the first place?

Why has this rule been enforced?

The issue of disproportionate interrupting of women by their male co-workers has been a topic of discussion since the publication of a 2017 Virginia Law Review study. This seminal investigation found that in the 2015 Supreme Court term, Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were interrupted disproportionately more frequently than their male counterparts. A plethora of academic literature suggests that this problem is not isolated to the legal sector. An empirical linguist, Kieran Snyder, found that in the tech industry, men are twice as likely as their female colleagues to interrupt someone that is speaking. This sentiment is echoed by Sotomayor herself, who, upon announcing the rule change, argued that the experiences of the female Justices on the Court reflect the position of women in society as a whole. In her powerful speech, she also asserted that even when male and female colleagues make the same argument, the woman is often offered less respect and attention.

The political power of words

Although seemingly a niche field, linguistics and semantics have long been relevant in the world of politics. The political importance of allowing everyone to have an equal opportunity to speak was perhaps best encapsulated by U.S. Representative Maxine Waters. In July 2017, six months after the “A Million Women March” in Washington D.C. in protest against Donald Trump’s inauguration, she sparked an online movement with her use of the phrase “reclaiming my time”. It is based on a procedural phrase in court in reference to a representative’s right to speak and can be used to ‘reclaim’ their time when interrupted. Waters relentlessly used the phrase when questioning Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was seen to be purposefully misdirecting the questioning as to avoid answering. After this event, “reclaiming my time” became a metaphor for the dismissals and microaggressions often faced by women in the workplace. Now, four years after Waters brought the phrase to life, women across the US still remember it as an idiom of empowerment. Sonia Sotomayor then swept along with this tidal wave of emancipation, elevating the political significance of not allowing women to finish speaking to the level of the Supreme Court. What drove her to be so passionate about bringing about such a rule change?

Who is Sonia Sotomayor?

The Justice is a member of the ‘liberal bloc’ of Supreme Court Justices. As the first Hispanic woman on the Court and the third woman to ever hold the position, her nomination by Barack Obama in 2009 signalled hope for institutional change. Twelve years after she assumed the role, Sotomayor is still viewed by many as one of the few voices on the Supreme Court that represent those who have historically been marginalised and underrepresented. In her speech announcing the seminal rule change, Sotomayor touched on how issues such as a lack of diversity have affected her personally in her career, whilst powerfully criticising the lack of ethnic and professional diversity on the Supreme Court. Out of the total 114 Justices who have served since its establishment in 1789, only four have been women. The first woman to break this glass ceiling was Sandra Day O’Connor, who did not do so until 1981, leaving the Supreme Court with a 200-year history as a male-only institution. In this context, the decision to enforce a rule which protects the only two female Justices is particularly significant, especially when considering its potential impact in wider Supreme Court cases related to women’s rights.

What has been the impact of the rule change?

According to Sotomayor herself, the new rule has been hugely influential in not only the structure and procedure of oral arguments, but in the dynamic of the court as a whole. For example, Chief Justice John Roberts is thought to be more aware and responsive to interruptions in the court in comparison to previous terms. Perhaps most strikingly, Justice Clarence Thomas, who is known for his lack of contribution in sessions, has conversely asked questions in every argument this term since the enforcement of the new rule. The latter shows that not only female Justices benefit from the change in the structure of the Courts’ oral argument, but also male Justices. This contradicts any notion that women empowerment comes at the expense of men. Where women benefit, all of society benefits. Sonia Sotomayor has paved the way for structural reforms towards in one of the highest, oldest, and most respected institutions of the United States. If change is possible there, it can be possible anywhere.

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