Should judges be allowed to embellish their robes or wear different colors? For Florida’s highest court, the issue is black and white, or make that solid black.
On September 10, 2015, the Supreme Court approved a rule that prevents judges throughout the state of Florida from wearing colorful robes or other adornments while presiding over cases. Justices claim in an eight-page decision that judges who “[wear] different colored robes or robes with varying embellishments” could create uncertainty for the individuals who go before the court.
The decision stated, “Depending on the color or pattern of the robe or the type of embellishment worn, some may wonder whether the presiding judge is a ‘real judge’ or whether the judge will take the proceedings serious. Robe color also could be seen as a reflection of a judge’s mood or attitude that day. Should a defendant facing the death penalty feel trepidation when the presiding judge appears in a red robe or fee more at ease when the robe is green?”
While it is unclear from the decision just how many judges had ditched traditional black robes for something more colorful, the rule drew some opposition before gaining approval.
Broward County Circuit Judge, Merrilee Ehrlich, wrote in an April filing that the issue of judicial robes should be handled on a case-by-case basis. She wrote that “Historically, the respect was accorded austere, plain black judicial robes designed for my brethren, at the time, older, somber-appearing men. I wear a simple white lace collar on my plain black robes to add a touch of femininity to the dignity of the robe. It is equally important for the Florida Supreme Court to acknowledge that we now have a diverse bench.”
The recent Florida mandate carries on the rich tradition of black judicial robes that dates back to the King’s Bench of 15th century England, where courts required different colors of robes depending on the season or type of case. In the United States Supreme Court, justices wore red robes until 1801, when Chief Justice John Marshall set a new tradition of wearing a black robe for his swearing-in ceremony. Since then, most judges and justices in America have donned a black robe. The color is perceived as a symbol of the dignity and solemnity of the judicial office. The robe itself, in covering most of the body except for the head, is a visible symbol that a litigant or attorney appearing before a judge is not dealing with an individual, but rather with the court and the State and principles of justice.
Of course, analogous standards apply to attorneys, who normally wear respectable business attire, as they are officers of the court and have a role in upholding the dignity of the judicial system. For both lawyers and judges, the style and formality of court attire can have a positive impact in recognizing the importance of court proceedings. As the Supreme Court noted, “The people of Florida have a right to expect equal justice every day, in every court of the state.”
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