Don’t Judge A Judge By His Cover

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Though we are admonished not to judge a book by its cover, most of us do, in fact, judge people by their cover, i.e., their clothes. In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare penned the famous and applicable line, “For the apparel oft proclaims the man….” In today’s jargon, that probably translates to “clothes make the man.”

Objectively it is easy for one to agree that it is not right to prejudge the worth of someone by their outward appearance alone. However, in practical application, first impressions are often based on one’s clothing because that is what is visible and easily assessed. An interviewer isn’t likely to initially be inclined to hire the bedraggled job applicant in torn jeans, a dirty t-shirt, and worn out flip flops. But behind that poor wardrobe may be a well educated individual with a keen work ethic(and woeful fashion sense).

Interestingly, not judging someone based on his cover has been a recent issue in the judicial arena where justice is supposed to be blind. Lady Justice is pictured as being blindfolded so that she has no sense of what the petitioner in court looks like. Tables have now been turned because the focus has now been switched to what the judges are wearing to court. What do the litigants think of thee dispensers of justice based on the judge’s attire?

The Florida Supreme Court has addressed this crucial issue and just this month adopted a new rule regarding what a judge is authorized to wear when presiding over proceedings in the halls of justice. Their pronouncement states that: “during any judicial proceeding, robes worn by a judge must be solid black with no embellishment.” The highest court in the Sunshine State believes that this wardrobe choice will promote trust and confidence in the judicial system.

Cough! Cough! Excuse me, but I hardly think that any litigant is that concerned about what the judge is wearing so as to have it become the basis of an opinion about the judicial system as a whole. Based on my own practice, I can tell you that judicial temperament, the speed in announcing a decision and the time it takes to get a hearing set on the judge’s docket are far more persuasive to a litigant than the color of a judge’s robe.

In my personal opinion, a judge’s fashion style is not necessarily indicative of his or her impartiality or biases. If a female judge chooses to add a lace collar to a black robe, a la U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, will male litigants really feel that this frill on the judicial robe signifies a bias for women because the judge adds a feminine touch to her judicial attire?
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Obviously, there are limits to what a judge should wear. For example, a cammo robe might signify a gun rights bias to an NRA member appearing before a judge. A robe of many colors might lead a litigant to believe that the judge was a religious conservative with a dim view of lawbreaker. And what if the judge chooses to comply with the new rule by wearing a simple black bathrobe to court? That’s technically within the meaning of the rule as written. Permitted and comfy, but not a professional looking selection.

The issuance of this new Florida Supreme Court rule leads me to conclude that the Sunshine State justices sitting in their ivory tower in Tallahassee have way too much time on their hands and way too little common sense. Are judicial wardrobe choices such a big problem that we have to take the time (and use my hard-earned tax dollars) to promulgate a rule about what is appropriate, non-biased attire that will not give litigants a bad impression should they decide to judge the judge by his/her cover? Just wondering, but isn’t the fact that the judge is on the bench presiding over the court proceedings with the power to send those appearing before him/her to jail, divest them of their property or separate them from their children more of statement of judicial authority and focus than the color or embellishment of the robe the judge happens to be wearing that day? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if common sense was as big a concern as fashion sense?

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