Justice May Be Blind, Judges Notice Court Attire
What is it with lawyers and court attire? The media loves to gossip about the strange things people say and do, and dress, in court. The woman who came to a hearing in a night-gown and hair curlers. The man who was so upset at a ruling, he yelled at the judge until deputies started appearing in the back of the courtroom. Both fail the test of proper attire for court, or decorum in court, for that matter.
Most people have heard that justice is supposed to be blind. And for that reason, Lady Justice is often depicted wearing a blindfold, as in the image to the right. But what does that mean? It means that courts should consider people without regard to who is strong, weak, who their parents are, how connected they are, etc. Justice should only consider the merits of your case – in theory, that means disregarding court attire. but not in reality.
For the most part, judges are very good at considering only the merits of the case in front of them. But, of course, judges are human too, and as such may let your courtroom behavior or court attire creep into how they consider your case. As such, it is important to understand how to play the game of being in court.
At a recent Inn of Court meeting, now-retired Chief Judge Martinez gave a great example of how proper attire for court was a real issue in a case. He recalled a child custody hearing where he could tell simply by looking at the litigants that he didn’t like the father. The father showed up with tattoos all over him, and clothing somewhat to match – anything but proper court attire. However, it turned out that the father was a gentle person and caring father who had a good relationship with the children. Needless to say, the moral of the story was that it reminded even seasoned judges not to be prejudiced by the way someone looks.
This can be especially true in the context of family law, most critically in cases involving custody and children. Taking care of children is serious business, so judges may reasonably conclude that taking the court process seriously means you are a serious person, and therefore will take rearing children seriously. So while you won’t necessarily win dressing properly for a hearing, not wearing proper court attire can hurt your case.
Court Attire For Your Family Law Hearing
Lawyers are expected to dress up for court – proper attire for court includes jackets & ties, leather shoes, etc, and women additionally have the option of wearing skirts/blouses. However, the dress code for parties and witnesses is virtually non-existent. No hats, and must have a shirt & shoes – that’s about it. While Colorado family law cases are done in state courts, the federal courts in Colorado have a dress code for jurors, which states: “How should I dress? Business casual attire is suitable. Shorts, t-shirts, tank tops, flip-flops and hats are not appropriate.”
Access to justice is an important American right, and the courts should be open to everyone no matter what they’re wearing – i.e. judge the merits of a case, rather than being fashion police over a party’s court attire. Besides, Justice can’t see you anyway. Also, if the courts did try to impose a dress code, it would likely be unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that there is a First Amendment right to wear even vulgar clothing in a courthouse.
What Not to Wear – Bad Attire for Court…
As a general rule, people these days don’t feel the necessity to dress up for court. The most egregious example I’ve ever seen was a man wearing a sleeveless shirt bearing a beer company logo soaked, appropriately, in beer. The judge thought he was drunk and had him breathalyzed from the witness stand. He was sober, just poorly dressed in undeniably bad courtroom attire. Alternatively sometimes people do dress up, but in weird and Trekkie type ways. Nowadays, if you show up to court wearing a suit, people will assume you’re an attorney.
And even though someone may be permitted to wear what they like, that does not mean it’s always a good idea. Clothes make the person, and if you dress disrespectfully, it will certainly not help your case, and it may well hurt it. Despite USA Today running an article 10 years ago describing how judges are cracking down on court attire, we’ve seen no particular crackdown in El Paso County, but we also have rarely seen people dressing down too badly.
Here are examples of what not to wear in court, items which would not be proper court attire in the eyes of many judges would are deciding the fate of your case:
- Tank-tops or halter tops
- Shorts or short skirts
- Jeans or sweatpants
- Baggy pants, or pants which expose underwear
- Tennis shoes
- Non-traditional decorative items, such as excessive piercing, chains, etc
- Clothing with offensive logos
- Hats, unless for religious purposes
What to Wear – Proper Courtroom Attire
This attorney knows an “old-timer” who used to tell clients that they should wear their Sunday best, something they would wear to church. However, as society has become generally more casual in recent years, even that doesn’t quite cut it.
Graham.Law recommends that people dress respectably, without going overboard. Business casual is a decent way to think about it. And not to be sexist or traditional, but the standards are different for men than women.
- Male Court Attire. For most family law cases, men should generally wear khakis, polo or button-down shirts, and leather shoes.
- Female Court Attire. Women can wear the same as men, or have more flexibility to wear an appropriate dress/skirt.
You don’t want to overdress – wearing a 3-piece suit may make you look like a gangster, or if you’re a hard-working parent, feed the narrative that you are a successful business person with little time for the children. Or create the impression you’re well-off (bad if support is at issue). So don’t wear your Sunday best – you’ll likely be the only person in court who does. And there’s also a practical reason for this advice – unless you regularly dress like this, you may be uncomfortable and fidgeting in court, which could send the wrong message.
But absolutely do not underdress. No t-shirts, no shorts, flip flops, etc. If you really had to err one way or the other, you’re better off over-dressing than under-dressing.
Look friendly, approachable, and respectful in your attire.
“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.”Mark Twain, supposedly.
Even though your clothes aren’t supposed to make a difference, they certainly can. In fact, high profile criminal defense attorneys will sometimes curate the wardrobes of their clients. One famous example was during the Menendez brothers murder trial of the 90s. The normally high-fashion label wearing brothers were dressed in khakis and pastel sweaters to emphasise their youth and supposed innocence.
Decorum – How to Act In the Courtroom
No matter how well-dressed you are when you enter the courtroom, if you act like an ass once in there, you’ve lost the fight. So a brief word on courtroom decorum. When you enter a courtroom, there are a few things to remember. Court decorum rules are somewhat traditional. Remove your hat (aside from religiously mandated headwear) when you enter. Also, turn off your phone. Judges are tolerant of attorneys having their phone out, but really that is only because some attorneys keep their calendars on their phones, and schedules need to be coordinated on occasion. So if you see someone else on their phone, that doesn’t mean it’s ok to get yours out too.
If you are called as a witness, you may go to the witness stand and sit there. The attorney or judge will tell you when you can begin to testify. For most people, being on the witness stand can be a bit intimidating, being nervous is nothing to be ashamed of. Try to answer the question you have been asked, and only that question.
When any other person is on the witness stand, remain silent while that person is testifying. In any hearing, especially contentious ones, it is understood that you will disagree with opposing parties or witnesses. If you make comments like, “That’s not true”, “I can’t believe you said that”, the judge will get very annoyed very quickly.
Similarly, demeanor must be respectful. No shaking your head, tsk-ing, etc. You will have a turn and you should write a note to your attorney explaining your position on any disputed testimony in case it needs to be addressed in rebuttal. Judges hate outbursts because for hearings to remain orderly and efficient, they must remain calm. Additionally, when more than one person is speaking, it can disrupt the recording system.
If the judge starts speaking, stop immediately. Speaking over a judge, or interrupting him/her, is both disrespectful, and in extreme cases, could result in being held in “direct contempt of court.” If you are testifying, and an attorney makes an objection, stop talking immediately. The judge and attorneys will discuss the objection and then give you further instruction. Sometimes you’ll be allowed to continue, other times the objection will mean that you have to move on to another topic.
Some people are put off by how deferential the process is to the judge. The process may have its roots in an older system, with a different class structure, and therefore is less egalitarian than we Americans are generally used to. However, remember that the judge may be deciding things that will profoundly influence your life, and that of you children. It’s best to get whatever advantages you can, and not stand out as a trouble-maker. Save the complaining, if any, for the bar afterwards.