In the midst of a lively oral argument at the Supreme Court, the justices' questioning of the attorneys at the podium sometimes overlaps, with several justices jumping in with different queries at the same time and talking over each other. The situation usually resolves itself fairly seamlessly and subtly, with one justice trailing off or explicitly deferring to the other. But a somewhat tense moment at the Court on Tuesday indicates that Justice Sonia Sotomayor may still be getting used to the rhythm of the questioning and the etiquette of sharing argument time with her more seasoned colleagues on the high court bench.
During arguments in United Student Aid Funds v. Espinosa, a case involving the discharge of student loans during bankruptcy, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Michael J. Meehan, counsel for the respondent in the case, about the petitioner's interpretation of a provision of the Bankruptcy Code at issue.
Meehan began his response to Ginsburg, and Sotomayor -- who has already established herself as an active and assertive questioner during her short time on the Supreme Court bench -- jumped in during the middle of Meehan's second sentence to engage him on a different topic.
"Counsel, may I interrupt for just one moment, because I -- there is something needling at me that I do need an answer to ..." Sotomayor said.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who sits next to Sotomayor, turned toward her as if to say something or intervene -- but Ginsburg was ready with a quick and forceful response.
"And I'd like him to answer the question that I asked him first," Ginsburg said.
"I'm sorry," Sotomayor said, looking slightly chagrined.
Sotomayor did get another chance to question Meehan later on, and engaged him in a fairly long colloquy until the red light on the podium flashed on, signaling that his argument time was finished.
Laurel Newby is a senior editor with Law.com.