For the second time in a week, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris was interrupted by her male colleagues, who told the former prosecutor from California to back off aggressively questioning Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
CNN commentator Jason Miller actually called her hysterical—never mind that Harris never raised her voice or lost her cool.
For women litigators, it’s a depressingly familiar dynamic.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed or lunched with many of the top women litigators across the country. And they’ve shared a common experience: they are constantly calibrating how they come across, trying to make sure they aren’t perceived as shrill, or god forbid, hysterical.
As Greenberg Traurig’s Lori Cohen put it, “As a female trial attorney, you can be viewed as being too combative, too harsh. You hesitate to say it, but the ‘b-word’ can come up. There’s always that risk, that balancing.”
For Harris, who was attorney general of California from 2011 to 2016, and before that, a district attorney, dealing with recalcitrant witnesses is well-honed skill. She knows how to ask pointed questions designed to elicit key information.
But in the courtroom, there’s a saving grace: there will be women on the jury.
That’s not to suggest women are automatically going to side with other women in some expression of girl power—if anything, women can be highly judgmental of each other.
But the mere presence of female jurors forces male lawyers to be wary of openly belittling a woman lawyer. They know that doing so risks alienating the women of the jury.
No comparable check exists in the U.S. Senate.
There, good old boys Richard Burr and John McCain felt free to scold Harris for doing the exact same thing as male senators: pushing witnesses for answers.
In both instances, Harris was pressing for a yes or no answer in the short amount of time each senator is allotted to ask questions. And both Sessions and Rosenstein were dithering and non-responsive.
On June 7 and again on June 13, McCain, R-Ariz., felt compelled to jump in and ask Burr, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, to order Harris to back off, as if the nation’s top two lawyers couldn’t fend for themselves for five minutes of questioning by Harris.
On June 7, Harris asked Rosenstein if he would provide a letter to Robert Mueller assuring him he would be able to operate independently as he conducts the Russia investigation.
“Well, it’s not a short answer, senator,” Rosenstein said.
Harris responded. “It is. Either you are willing to do that or not, as we have precedent in that regard.”
And then McCain inserted himself. “Mr. Chairman, [he] should be allowed to answer the question,” he said.
Referring to Harris, Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said “The senator will suspend. The chair is going to exercise his right to allow the witness to answer the question. The committee is on notice to provide the witnesses the courtesy, which has not been extended all the way across, extend the courtesy for questions to get answered.”
Eyebrows raised in disbelief, Harris responded, “Mr. Chairman, respectfully, I would point out that this witness has joked about his ability to filibuster.”
“The senator will suspend,” Burr said sharply.
A week later, Harris asked Sessions (who in his slow, meandering answers seemed to be channeling fellow Alabamian Forrest Gump) about a Justice Department policy that he said prevented him from recounting conversations with President Trump.
“Did you not ask your staff to show you the policy that would be the basis for your refusing to answer the majority of questions we are asking you…” Harris said, when McCain interrupted once again.
“The witness should be allowed to answer the question,” he said.
Burr mildly rebuked McCain for stepping in–“Senators will allow the chair to control the hearing,”—and then said, “Senator Harris, let him answer.”
Sessions never did provide an actual answer, and Harris’ time expired.
Harris later tweeted, “It was a simple question. Can Sessions point to the policy, in writing, that allows him to not answer a whole host of our questions today.”
She added, “I questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The American people don’t deserve evasion – we deserve the truth.”
And finally, “The women of the United States Senate will not be silenced when seeking the truth.”
Contact Jenna Greene at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jgreenejenna.