No shoes, no shirt, no justice. By providing courthouse staff with broad discretion and few guidelines, courtroom dress codes can violate constitutional rights. One solution: getting more judges involved in deciding what’s appropriate and what is not. Here is original TMP commentary from Jeff Campbell, a third-year Harvard law student: The Marshall Project.
There is more case law about courtroom attire than you may think. For example, a priest serving as an attorney may be required to wear non-clerical garb, at least where the dictates of his or her religion will not be violated. In La Rocca v. Lane, 37 N.Y.2d 575 (N.Y. 1975), the trial court held that the attorney, who was also a priest, could not wear his clerical collar while he was representing his client during a criminal trial. On appeal, the Court of Appeals agreed and held that the court of necessity limited defense counsel’s right to free exercise of religion in that he was compelled to remove the symbol of his religious calling, a requirement of his calling which is not unconditional or beyond dispensation. The risk that a fair trial could not be had outweighed this incidental limitation.
Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz once wrote a memorandum entitled, “Courtroom Decorum and Respect for Courtrooms.” The memo contained a directive to trial judges not to restrict litigants from dressing as they choose. The memo stated, in pertinent part:
I do not believe we should try to influence how litigants or witnesses dress, absent something that approaches the obscene. I believe the fact finder, be it the jury or the judge, should see the litigant or witness as that person wishes to appear and reach whatever conclusions flow from that ‘fact.’ If a worker believes that he or she should dress the way he or she always does, I would not stop that; nor would I try to prevent that worker from dressing in a way he or she never does. I realize though this may not be in accord with present practice and welcome your views on it.
So, what is your take on the issue?