Women Interrupted: A Dystopian Future

By Lori Runkle, Guest Writer

The United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy retired this summer and was replaced in October 2018 by a highly controversial Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Before Kavanaugh’s appointment, political pundits were discussing possible future Supreme Court rulings on abortion, affirmative action, partisan gerrymandering, voting rights, and the death penalty in a divided and politicized climate that is modern America.

But who gets to speak?

“Justice Interrupted,” a More Perfect podcast from December 18, 2017, researched male Supreme Court justices’ frequent interruptions of their female colleagues on the bench during oral arguments. Interrupting women also happened during Brett Kavanaugh’s senate hearing where the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, interrupted Sen. Diane Feinstein during her opening remarks. Judge Kavanaugh continued the rude behavior when he aggressively interrupted both Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, even demanding indignantly if Sen. Klobuchar had ever blacked out from drinking alcohol. Sen. Klobuchar replied to Kavanaugh’s interruption by calmly responding, “When you have a parent that is an alcoholic, you are pretty careful about drinking.”

Kavanaugh was appointed to replace Justice Kennedy, and this does not bode well for his future conduct especially when interacting with women on the Supreme Court. Research published in the “Virginia Law Review” in March 2017 found that, “…judicial interactions at oral argument are highly gendered, with women being interrupted at disproportionate rates by their male colleagues, as well as by male advocates.” Will the continuance of male dominance and a male majority on the court further block and stymie female justices’ voices? This is a question I will contribute to the pundits’ speculation on the court’s future.

It was not a surprise that the findings of the “Justice Interrupted” study presented in the More Perfect podcast, found that in the 7,000 interruptions total analyzed from the 2004-2015 Supreme Court transcripts, female justices were interrupted three times more frequently than male justices.

Returning to the retirement of the all-important swing voter, Justice Kennedy, it just so happens that he was the master interrupter, interrupting female justices much more frequently than lowly male lawyers who were presenting their oral arguments to the court. Speaking patterns reflect dominance in society, so perhaps Justice Kennedy was demonstrating his dominance and key position on the court by interrupting his female colleagues most frequently. Scalia was the number two interrupter, with Justice Rehnquist earning a bronze medal on the interruption study from the 2004-2015 time period. It is now 2018, and here comes Kavanaugh.

It was not unexpected the study also found that when female Supreme Court justices first started their jobs on the bench, they asked permission to speak during oral arguments.

“May I ask a question?”

Or, they said things politely: “I apologize, but I would like to ask a question.”

This polite language only encouraged their male colleagues and male lawyers to ignore potential female opinions. Men were more likely to interrupt the polite woman on the bench.

Over time, the female justices adapted, and their speech patterns became more male, direct, and assertive. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the female justice who is perceived to be the most direct, was also mocked and punished for asserting herself on the bench. Sotomayor was nicknamed Roseanne Barrio by Dennis Miller on his comedy show, “The Dennis Miller Show.” She was also the subject of 2009 National Public Radio story titled, “Is Sonia Sotomayor Mean?” In that story, Sen. Lindsay Graham said this about her: “There’s a character problem; there’s a temperament problem,” suggesting that there was something wrong with her because she was assertive and confident on the bench. Sotomayor has also been called a bully and is described as “talking too much” in many press reports.

After watching season one and two of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an HBO series based on a Margret Atwood’s novel portraying a future dystopian America where men dominate and control every aspect of women’s lives, I imagined Brett Kavanaugh in the role of Commander Fred Waterford. Commander Waterford is a misogynist male head of state, similar to Donald Trump, grabbing at Miss America’s genitals and frequenting brothels and bars with political fictional characters similar to real-life Mad Mitch McConnell (senior senator from Kentucky) and alleged pedophile Judge Roy Moore.

Just as Offred, the lowly female handmaid in Margaret Atwood’s book, was punished for being too blunt, too aggressive, and then labeled insubordinate when her speech deviated from “Yes, please, Mrs. Waterford,” and “No thank you, Mrs. Waterford,” polite language encouraged men to disregard women and talk over them in the U.S. Supreme Court.

How do female U.S. Supreme Court justices express their opinions uninterrupted and avoid being labeled as bullies with character flaws? Offred lives by the mock-Latin mantra, Illegitimi non carborundum: Don’t let the bastards grind you down!

Do not apologize for your questions or the rudeness and disrespect from your male colleagues.

Keep on speaking loudly and proudly women on the bench! Do not allow Sen. Grassley, Sen. Graham, Justice Kennedy, or Judge Kavanaugh to linguistically grind you down.

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