Why Do Judges Wear Robes?

One of the first things you notice when you enter a courtroom is the guy (or, increasingly, gal) up front in the robe.  So what’s with that?  Who—other than a porn star, maybe—wears a robe to work?  And if he wants to stand out from the crowd, why of all things, a robe?  Why not, say, a yellow jump suit?  Or a hockey sweater?  Something distinctive, large, and loose-sleeved that makes the work of banging on a gavel easy?

Most judicial robes are plain and black but some judges have taken liberties with the traditional theme and, with a devil-may-care attitude, slip into something navy.  Talk about casting caution to the wind!  Famously, now-deceased, Chief United States Supreme Court Judge William Rehnquist adopted his much-commented-upon British Lord Chancellor striped gold-sleeved outfit at the Clinton impeachment hearings and, like Narcissus, apparently fell so in love with his reflection in the brocade and never could quite give it up (the night before the commencement of the Clinton impeachment hearings, Rehnquist had seen a play portraying the British Lord Chancellor and modified his robe accordingly).  Although some speculated that look might well persist, when Chief Judge Roberts was named to succeed Rehnquist, he went back to basic black.

I leafed through a couple of on-line judicial robe catalogues recently (I know, I’ve really got to get a life!), and found robes in something known as “Peachskin”, “Wonder crepe,” polyester “Starlite”, “Viva”, “Empress satin” (hopefully limited to female judges), and various custom fabrics.  The styles ranged from “Arbiter” through “Geneva” to “Jurist”, “Delphi”, “Magistrate”, and “Plymouth.”  The available colors were outlandish: black, black, black, navy, and (hold on here) “midnight blue”.

Why, though, do judges wear robes?

It’s complicated.

Historically, judges were gleaned solely from the aristocracy, the upper crust of what in olden times was what must have been a truly crusty society.  As a show of their importance and their status, judges, of course, wore the finest of their finery.  Traditionally, judicial robes were often made of ermine, the rich, weasel-like fur of the stoat.  A robe and all the trappings was really quite mainstream at that time for anyone of importance.  And so the judge was simply saying, “I’m important” rather than, as now, saying “I’m a judge.”

Black robes are a carryover from jolly old England, black clothing almost always signaling joviality, like funerals.  In fact, the tradition started in the 17th century when all of the judges of the nation attended the funeral of Queen Mary II (1662 – 1694) and, of course, donned the black of mourning to observe the solemn event.  The official period of mourning lasted many years, over which time the tradition of “men in black” took hold.

British adventurers into other nations imported the trappings of Mother England with them, including black be-robed judges, into the American colonies.  As you probably know, British judges also wore—and largely still wear—white powdered wigs along with their black robes.  So too, was it in America in the early years.

After the Revolution, however, many of the Founders wanted to purge the nation of the trappings of British aristocracy.  Jefferson was at the forefront of this movement.  Other, more traditional of the Founders, disagreed.  John Adams, a lawyer, was among the traditionalists arguing for preservation of the British model of a judge.  Ultimately, a compromise was reached: the powdered wigs were chucked but the “robes of office” would remain.  Further regulation of the judicial costume was left, in true federalist fashion, to the individual states.

Originally, United States federal judges were judicial peacocks, wearing oftentimes flamboyant robes.  As time went by, the robes got simpler; plain and black became the norm.

Before the mid-19th century, many American states—predominantly in the South—adopted Jeffersonian-inspired austerity and had their judges wear no official costume at all.  This later changed with greater normalization of the states.

Despite the general rule of plain and black (although female judges, RBG among them, often accessorize their robes with frilly white collars), there remain some quaint exceptions.  In Maryland, for example, judges of the Court of Appeals wear red robes with white “cross” collars (kind of a cross between a traditional bow tie and a western bolo tie).  The Supreme Court justices of Pennsylvania wear multi-colored sashes over their black robes.  The Supreme Court Justices of Georgia wear gray robes with black linings and black velvet bars on the sleeves and at the collars.

Why do judges wear robes?  Well, to stand out, to be sure.  And as an expression of authority, continuity and solemnity.  Largely judges wear robes because judges have always worn robes.

And, by the way, the gavel thing is way overblown.  At least in trial courts, judges almost never bang a gavel even if they have one.  In federal courts, you might hear a bang now and again.  But it’s nothing like the jackhammer frenzied pounding made popular in the movies.  Most times, they’d likely have to dig into the pockets of their Peachskin Delphi robe to find the darn thing anyway.

Rohn K. Robbins

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