“Women and the Wisconsin Supreme Court”: An Update through 2016-17

Two years ago, a post titledWomen and the Wisconsin Supreme Courtfound that after delivering only 10% of the oral arguments presented to the supreme court in 1981-82, women appeared in this role at a steadily rising rate until their share of oral arguments had more than tripled, climbing to 33% in 2014-15.  Following such a pronounced increase, could the day be far off when women would address the justices with nearly the same frequency as did male attorneys?  Data from the next two terms help answer that question, and what they reveal is surprising in more ways than one.

After reaching 33% in 2014-15, not only did the share of oral arguments delivered by women fail to accelerate, or even increase gradually, it dropped below 30% in the next two terms, as shown in Table 1.[1]

(click on tables to enlarge them)

This outcome is especially arresting for the most recent year, 2016-17, when one compares the two individual categories in Table 1.  The first category, “public-interest groups and government agencies” includes such organizations as Legal Action of Wisconsin, the University Wisconsin’s Remington Center, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the Office of the State Public Defender, and various city and county attorneys’ offices.  Women were already delivering over half the oral arguments among attorneys in this category in 2014-15, but thereafter this percentage fell—indeed plunged in 2016-17 to only 25%, that is, to roughly the same level as a quarter century before.

Meanwhile, during nearly the entire three and a half decades covered by the table, women in the second category, “private firms and individuals,” appeared at a much lower rate than did their counterparts in the public-interest and government sector.  Thus it was noteworthy but not shocking to see the figure (9%) for women in the “private firms and individuals” category remain forty percentage points below the oral-argument share for women in the public-interest and government sector in 2015-16.  But what happened the next term was wholly unexpected, as the women’s share of oral arguments in the “private firms and individuals” category soared to 29%—considerably higher than for any other year in the table and, for the first time, exceeding the share for women in the public-interest and government sector.

Looking more closely at the public-interest and government sector, we see that the overwhelming majority of oral arguments have always been delivered by attorneys from just two sources—the Department of Justice (which includes the Attorney General’s Office and the Solicitor General’s Office) and the Office of the State Public Defender.  Table 2 illustrates the abrupt change of course in both agencies in 2016-17.  Among public defenders, women still accounted for 53% of oral arguments that term, but this represented a steep decline from their stunning share of 75% in 2015-16, and even from their 62% portion the previous year.

However, the percentage for this category was slashed more drastically by the contribution from the Department of Justice—and particularly the Solicitor General’s Office, from which no women at all emerged to deliver an oral argument in any of the office’s 13 cases.  As a result, the share of the Department of Justice’s oral arguments that were presented by women—which had reached 55% in 2014-15—plummeted to 18% (6/33) in 2016-17.[2]

It is difficult to decide which is more remarkable—the surge of women from private firms delivering oral arguments in 2016-17, or the plunging rate in the government sector (and especially at the Department of Justice).  Both developments ran entirely counter to the 35-year trends displayed in Tables 1 and 2, and they leave one wondering if the figures for 2016-17 will be viewed in coming years more as signs of a new and enduring reality for women, or as an aberration.


[1] I did not gather data for years other than those included in the two tables.    
[2] In 2015-16, the figure was 50% (13/26) for the Department of Justice.

About Alan Ball

Alan Ball is a Professor of History at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.


SCOWstats offers numerical analysis of the voting by Wisconsin Supreme Court justices on diverse issues over the past 93 years.


  1. […] most recent post in this series showed that, although women conducted a rapidly increasing share of oral arguments […]

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