ACLE Empirical Legal Studies Seminar with Daniel L. Chen (ETH Zürich). Title: "Covering: Mutable Characteristics and Perceptions of Voice in the U.S. Supreme Court". Venue: Faculty of Economics and Business, REC E0.04. The seminar is jointly organized with CREED.
This paper demonstrates that voice-based snap judgments based solely on the introductory sentences of lawyers arguing in front of the Supreme Court of the United States predict outcomes in the Court. The connection between vocal characteristics and court outcomes is specific to perceived masculinity even when judgment of masculinity is based only on less than three seconds of exposure to a lawyer’s speech sample. Although previous studies suggest a significant role of vocal characteristics in the court room, prior to our work none has identified a definitive connection between such characteristics and court outcomes holding the content of the speech effectively constant. Using data on all oral arguments made by male lawyers between 1999 and 2013, we find that roughly 30% of the association between voice-based masculinity and court outcomes comes from within-male lawyer variation, whereas 70% comes from between-male lawyer variation. Moreover, voice-based first impressions predict both male and female lawyers’ court outcomes, but in different ways: males are more likely to win when they are perceived as less masculine, whereas females are more likely to win when they are perceived as more feminine. Ratings of male lawyers by male subjects and female lawyers by female subjects were more predictive of court outcomes. Liberal justices were more likely to vote against male lawyers perceived as more masculine while conservative justices were more likely to vote for female lawyers perceived as more feminine. Pre-trial case characteristics were not correlated with voice characteristics. Correlations between perceived masculinity and court outcomes were stronger among petitioners coming from private firms. In mechanism experiments, male voices perceived as more masculine were rated as more likely to win, but the correlation was halved when information or incentives for accuracy was provided. Our findings suggest that vocal characteristics may be relevant in even as solemn a setting as the Supreme Court of the United States, where correlations between malleable advocate characteristics and high-stakes outcomes should not persist if law firms and advocates adjust their behavior to eliminate such correlations.