Ethics Quiz: The Judgmental Judge

"I'm sorry, Miss McBeal, would you repeat that? I lost my train of thought..."

“I’m sorry, Miss McBeal, would you repeat that? I lost my train of thought…”

Circuit Judge Royce Taylor in Murfreesboro, Tennessee is being excoriated by some as being sexist or at least presumptuous for daring to broach the topic of attorney attire in the courtroom, specifically female attorney attire. In a memo, he noted that the topic had arisen in recent Bench/Bar Committee meeting, and wrote,

“The unanimous opinion was that the women attorneys were not being held to the same standard as the men. It was requested that the judges require all attorneys to dress professionally. I have advised some women attorneys that a jacket with sleeves below the elbow is appropriate or a professional dress equivalent.”

What? An elderly male judge presuming to tell female professionals what they should or shouldn’t wear?

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz:

Is it fair and respectful for judges to require female lawyers to adopt the same dress standards as male lawyers in the courtroom?

This one is easy, I think. Anyone who has seen “My Cousin Vinny” knows that male lawyers are required to stay within a very narrow range of attire options when appearing in court, and the southern judge so magnificently played by the late Fred Gwynn reacted realistically to “Vinnie” appearing before him in a leather jacket.  But in this age where female news anchors go on the air in cocktail dresses, and female TV lawyers, sometimes portrayed by ex-swimsuit models, make sure they point up their physical assets while arguing to the jury, many real female trial attorneys, especially the younger ones, have been pushing the limits of courtroom decorum to the limit…and getting away with it, especially with before judges who enjoy looking at them during a long day. There are tactical advantages of an attractive woman trying certain cases, not the least of which is that she may be able to keep some juror’s eyes on her when he should be listening to her opponent.

I can understand why female lawyers would want as much leeway as they can get away with. If this trend isn’t addressed, however, courtroom respect and decorum is already at risk. Jonathan Turley raises another concern:

“The problem is not simply the decorum of the courtroom but also the inimical impact on clients. Represented parties may not be in a position to object to the dress of their counsel. However, when a lawyer shows up in gym shoes or a sweater, it can create a poor impression for a judge or a jury. Both male and female colleagues will often point out such dress problems to me at the courthouse with shared dissatisfaction but no one says anything, including me. There is a fear that you will be viewed as sexist or prejudiced in some way.”

Judge Taylor isn’t being sexist; he’s being responsible.


Sources: Res Ipsa Loquitur, AOL

33 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Judgmental Judge

  1. Judge Royce Taylor was at fault for writing his memo specifically directed at female attorneys.. He should have reflected on his Bench/Bar Committee meeting and broadened the message to ALL attorneys.

    Clothes and appearance are extremely important for a litigating attorney. There was a female attorney who did not present herself well at a civil case where I was in the jury. Her clothes were wrinkled and did not fit her at all.. Affected my opinion of her arguments, even though one has nothing to do with the other.

    Whatever the standards are they should be applied fairly regardless of sex, sexual orientation, race or religion… Or age.

    • I think that’s silly, JJ—it’s like reprimanding the whole class for being late when only a few are. Male lawyers wear suits, period. I’ve never even seen one in blazer and slacks. They have a dress code. They don’t go bare armed, they don’t wear short pants, they don’t wear evening make-up. The issue is female lawyer dress. There’s nothing wrong with saying so. They can take it. If male lawyers started coming into court unshaven, you wouldn’t argue that the judge should make a unisex edict about that, would you?

      • Of course it’s silly Jack. However a Judge is expected to be impartial, even though it may seem to trivialize the actual problem. He could have easily pointed touched on issues that would balance out his memo.

        His message is lost because he singled out women.. Now he might be the least sexist Judge in the county, but hte PERCEPTION of him now has changed with the public and in the courthouse, however, unfair that might be.

        • And of course we’re blessed with 20/20 hindsight, but if the judge were perceptive he would have turned his concern over to the local Lawyers association and give them the first chance to craft a dress code for male and female laywers.. He wouldn’t have to agree, but history tells us when you empower a group with their own destiny, they tend to do the right thing.

        • Impartial doesn’t mean you pretend that everyone needs a reminder. It means that if you enforce a standard with one group you enforce an equivalent standard with the other group. Not every correction issued needs to be “balanced” by correcting someone else also.

  2. Most professional dresses appropriate for summer are sleeveless. Many female attorneys who reach a certain age (late 30s) switch to dresses instead of suits. My personal opinion is that a professional dress can be just as elegant as a tailored suit. All that being said, I have ONLY worn suits into court. There are also courts in this country (and this may be one of them) where female attorneys are expected to wear skirt suits, not pant suits. While I despise this sort of sexism, at the end of the day it is an attorney’s job to be an advocate for his/her client, and part of that job entails not violating Judge’s crazy dress code rules.

  3. What does someone’s sexual orientation have to do with decorum in a court room? This is clearly a vestige of a much less enlightened era. Wearing what you want is a constitutionally protected right, isn’t it? Why should someone who evidently likes men be restricted in what they wear in a courtroom? Where’s the ACLU on this? If judges, jurors or client are uncomfortable with sexy women, they need to get over it and stop being bigots. It’s just Ick Factor. (Okay, just kidding. I think?)

    Maybe gowns and wigs are the answer as in England and elsewhere? I’m pretty sure any barrister of any pursuasion has to wear a powdered wig and a gown in court.

  4. From reading the original article, it’s seems that everyone involved (even the offended female attorney) agrees that female attire in the courtroom is an ongoing problem. The judge admits that it is a subject he did not feel comfortable bringing up for fear of being considered sexist. Turley admits he grumbles quietly with other’s, even other females, but does not bring it up for the same reason…being considered sexist. Too many women use the “sexist card” to get away with what is clearly inappropriate attire. If a judge has expectations for appropriate male attire, then he should have expectations for appropriate female attire. A woman who has sense and doesn’t play the “you are a sexist” game should be the first to back up a male judge in this type of scenario.

  5. My feeling is female lawyers should wear skirt suits.
    Possibly pants suits if they don’t look matronly (Hillary), in the cooler months.
    They should also be well-groomed (as in clean with hair and nails clean and not tarted up).
    Subdued jewelry.
    They should wear minimal make up and avoid any styles that look slutty.
    A good pair of shoes is also a must (nothing worse then watching someone traipse around in sloppy, scuffed shoes with the heels broken down).
    Good manners and comportment at all times.

    I’m not mentioning males because that wasn’t in the question.

    I’m not a lawyer but I personally would not attend any professional meeting with my arms or legs bare (as in no hose) or with sandals.
    It’s just not done.
    If I expect to be taken seriously, I need to look serious…that is my theory.

  6. . Too many women use the “sexist card” to get away with what is clearly inappropriate attire.
    Look, bottom line: you show up in court with your breasts on display over the top of your dress and everyone is going to have one word in their mind: “Bimbo”, whether or not that is what you are.
    After that, everything you say goes through the dumb broad filter before it reaches their ears, fair or not.

    It’s not any harder to wear a skirt suit than it is to wear a dress and it does not have to be expensive if you take care of your clothes.

  7. Society will have truly advanced to it’s greatest level of openness and true brotherhood when I can be represented by a bikini-clad vixen. Then I can give her a prompt ass-slap for a job well done if I’m acquitted!

    I can’t wait for the day!

    Remember, Brawndo has electrolytes, it’s what plants crave!

  8. I suddenly remember lyrics from some old Disney film: “Walk feminine, talk feminine, smile and be girl feminine. Compliment his masculinity, that’s what every girl should know. If you want to catch a beau.” I’m fine with dress codes for all situations — let’s just not forget that women in high power jobs is a relatively new concept, and we’re trying to figure out how to fit into this environment. Women’s Bar Associations constantly are having sessions on whether to wear pant suits, skirt suits, you want to look powerful — but not threatening, you still want (and perhaps need) to look attractive — but not slutty. I actually sat through 15 minutes once where panelists had a back and forth re open-toed heels in summer – ugh. And don’t forget that women don’t get to buy 3-4 high end suits and be done with it, our work wardrobes require more variety and that comes with a price tag. I’m not complaining, but I do think men have it a bit easier in this department because they really do have a “uniform.” My husband has a black, navy, and gray suit for client meetings and court along with a dozen button-downs. Done.

      • Men may or may not notice, but women do. It would not be good for career advancement to just rotate through a few suits with different blouses. Not to mention the shoes and purses that are required as well. I’ve generally been ignored by the fashion police at work over the years, but female partners do instruct younger associates about how to dress. The same holds true at higher levels at corporations.

      • Tex…I think what Beth is trying to say is that women have wardrobe issues which men don’t have to deal with. (I don’t want to put words in your mouth, Beth, so correct me if I’m wrong). I’ll give you some examples using your bikini- clad vixen/attorney. What color and type of material is her bikini? This is important to know because it will have an effect on the color of other accesories such as purses, handbags and shoes. The color of the purse and shoes may also be determined by the time of year. Some colors are acceptable year round. Others are not. Professional attire for women should rarely stray from this color mandate. Many women choose to wear jewelry. Jewelry is not a requirement but if a woman’s ears are pierced, she may seem “unfinished” if the piercing on her ears are noticeable and she is not wearing earrings. Also, the earrings and any other jewelry she chooses to wear need to compliment the bikini. Too much jewelry is a definite professional wardrobe malfunction. While some women can get away with not using make-up or cosmetics , a woman is sometimes seen as looking unprofessional if it is not used. Of course, too much of it is also considered unprofessional. Like you, I am from Texas, and Texas women take their hair products very seriously. A woman can be dressed impeccably…in her bikini…but “bad hair” is going to detract from her professional appearance. I dont EVEN want to go into the types and styled of shoes which may or may not be considered professional for women. A book could be written on the topic of open- toed shoes, alone. And then there are the endless questions about what is more professional…an American manicure or a French manicure or should the nail color play off the bikini? And if a nail color is going to be used…yes, a woman will have to account for the time of year. But only with certain nail colors. Other colors can be used year round. I think many of the issues pertaining to unprofessional female attire are caused by the fact that there are so many variables for a woman to take into account… and the options on those variables are overwhelming. Innocent mistakes are made. Most women can remember a specific time, which will live forever in her nightmares, when she was trying to “put it all together” before heading off to work…only to come the conclusion that wearing some horrible concoction such as a waist length blazer with “leggings” wasn’t such a good idea after all.

        Men are worried about the wrong thing when it comes to a standard professional dress code for women. The problem isn’t being called a sexist…the problem is finding someone who can do it. I think it would actually make a great musical.

        • What a great response! As a fyi, I was asked by a colleague the other day why I was wearing a “winter” color on my nails. I sharply retorted that it was a miracle that I had found time for a manicure at all.

          • Your ability to choose seasonally appropriate nail polish doesn’t seem like it should reflect on your professional abilities.

            Anyone making such a connection seems to cheapen you.

          • Are you asking me? In general, I don’t think women have a professional prerequisite to be “fashionable” in a career. Wearing professional attire is not the same thing as being fashionable in my mind. Women, in any career can be catty. Beth, it sounds like you are knee deep in it. Perhaps your choice of winter nail color had something to do with the frigidness you are being exposed to? Women can be so hateful to each other.

            • I’m just discussing the realities of the work place. Clothes matter. Isn’t that the whole point of Jack’s piece? It’s just more complicated for women because there are more choices AND we are still trying to make it in a relatively new environment for us. So I’m okay with rules like: suits in court or a dress that covers the shoulders.

              • Sorry, my beef is that you asserted women are *required* to have variety and therefore larger more expensive wardrobes. That doesn’t follow. If 5 items, relatively the same all passed the standard for professional, then guess what you have a small wardrobe that meets the needs of being professional.

                Anything after that and you are motivated by trends, fashion and appearance.

                I’ve got no problem with that, but don’t pretend like it is a professional *requirement*, because it isn’t.

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