If you’ve ever been in one, you’ll remember they’re usually big. The design is formal, barren, and plain. The judge always sits on a raised desk behind a solid slab of granite. The judge also wears a black robe.
Obviously, all the trappings project power and stability. When I was a young lawyer, it sometimes bothered me that the judges used these trappings of power as if they were their own. As I got older, I realized how important these symbols were and it didn’t bother me as much. Because even the most violent of men would become calm when they entered the courtroom. It was an amazing transformation. Why? Because of all the symbols of power and control.
Which brings us back to the robes. In Minnesota where I practice, the judges wear a plain black robe that is pleated at the shoulders and hangs down below the knees. It has a V-collar with a zipper front. There’s no other ornamentation on their robes.
Some of the first robes for the judiciary were recorded in paintings by the Spanish master, Velasquez, in the 1600’s. He painted judges wearing either black or red robes. In the 1500’s in England, judges not only wore robes, they also wore long wigs. Even today, in Great Britain, the judges still wear wigs in criminal trials and the lawyers wear the smaller wigs. In Italy and Portugal, both judges and lawyers wear robes in court.
Interestingly, in China up until 1984, judges wore street clothes—perhaps a result of Mao’s efforts to bring everyone down to the same socio-economic level. In 1984, they changed to clothing that resembled a military uniform. (Scary!!) Since 2000 the Chinese judges now wear black robes. It’s also interesting to note that since 2000, the Chinese have consulted with many Western courtroom experts and law professors to try to make their system more like the Western courts. That’s another subject for a blog in the future!!
So, what do judge in the U.S. wear under their robes?
Most are quite formal and wear white shirts with neckties or blouses for female judges. Sometimes, in the summer, a judge will wear a golf shirt or a t-shirt and put the robe on over these items. When they’re on the bench, it’s hard to tell they’re dressed so casually. Then, there’s the story of a female judge I once saw running for the elevator on a hot summer day.
The judges had parking privileges in the basement of the Government Center where the courtrooms were located. They could park underneath, take a back elevator, and come around behind the clerk’s desks to reach the elevators to their courtrooms. I was walking in the opposite direction one afternoon when I saw a female judge hurrying from the parking lot. She had bare legs, sandals, bare arms, and a bare neck under the V-collar. She ran past me on her way to the elevator. I’ve often wondered what she was wearing—-if anything—under her robe that day. It sure looked suspicious!