It’s so common to see every judge walk up to the bench with black robes flapping around their legs that we don’t even wonder why they wear those robes. At least in America the judges wear plain robes unlike England where the judges have colored collars, stripes on the sleeves, furry things around their necks, and funny wigs.
Why do judges wear robes?
Our law descended from English law and practice. Originally, royalty wore robes of distinction to make them, well, distinct. In an effort to emulate royalty and distinguish themselves, judge began to wear robes also. They weren’t as fancy as royalty, but they let everyone know the judges were somehow special and distinct from other professions like blacksmiths, fishermen, and farmers. And judges, who are also lawyers, are often happy to express their egotism in any fashion!
But why continue the practice in modern day? Are they hiding something under those robes? Golf shirts? Zuba pants from the 80s? Nothing? I remember one hot summer day when I crossed the public area of our local courthouse, I saw a female judge coming in from the parking lot. She wore a short black robe but her legs were bare, her arms were bare, and her neckline was bare. With an odd smile on her face, she raced past me. What did she have on underneath the robe she wore?
When I was a younger lawyer I often resented the pomp and circumstance of the elevated bench and the black robes. In fact, we often used the expression, “black robe disease” to describe those judges who became arrogant and let their position and power go to their heads.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the value of the ritual and the black robes. Some of the goals we want in a judicial system are a calm, non-violent, unemotional, and deliberative atmosphere in order to make fair decisions. The rituals and the robes do a lot to create that setting. I’m constantly amazed when extremely violent offenders come into the courtroom, they quiet down and are respectful of the person sitting high above them. cloaked with a black robe around their shoulders. Very seldom have I seen defendants argue with a judge or even question the rulings.
The ritual and robes certainly help with this. Even those defendants who are sentenced to life imprisonments by a judge, nod, maybe cry a little, and accept the ruling without argument or violence. Amazing!