Covering: Mutable Characteristics and Perceptions of Voice in the U.s. Supreme Court

Daniel Chen (Toulouse School of Economics, IAST, CNRS)
Yosh Halberstam (University of Toronto)
Alan Yu (University of Chicago)

Abstract: The emphasis on “fit” as a hiring criterion has raised the spectrum of a new form of subtle discrimination (Bertrand and Duflo 2016). Under complete markets, correlations between malleable characteristics and outcomes should not persist (Becker 1957). Yet using data on 1,901 U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments between 1998 and 2012, we document that voice-based snap judgments based on lawyers’ identical introductory sentences, “Mr. Chief Justice, (and) may it please the Court?”, predict court outcomes. The connection between vocal characteristics and court outcomes is specific only to perceptions of masculinity and not other characteristics, even when judgment is based on less than three seconds of exposure to a lawyer’s speech sample. Consistent with employers mistakenly favoring lawyers with masculine voices, perceived masculinity is negatively correlated with winning and the negative correlation is larger in more masculine-sounding industries. The first lawyer to speak is the main driver. Among these petitioners, males below median in masculinity are 7 percentage points more likely to win in the Supreme Court. Female lawyers are also coached to be more masculine and women’s perceived femininity predict court outcomes. Republicans, more than Democrats, vote for more feminine-sounding females, while Democrats, but not Republicans, vote for less masculine-sounding men. A de-biasing experiment finds that information reduces 40% of the correlation between perceived masculinity and perceived win, and incentives reduce another 20%. A model shows how the information treatment identifies statistical discrimination and the incentives treatment identifies taste. Perceived masculinity explains additional variance relative to and is orthogonal to the best random forest prediction model of Supreme Court votes.