The New York Daily News thought it was newsworthy that a North Carolina judge objected to a man appearing in court for a hearing dressed in a tee shirt and shorts. “Why are you going to show up to court dressed like that based on these charges?” the judge asked. Not getting what she felt was an appropriate response, she postponed the hearing. The offense involved was a particularly horrific one:Matthew Deans, 28, of Wilmington, N.C.,was charged with two misdemeanor counts of death by vehicle and two other charges in connection with the crash. He is free on $10,000 bail while awaiting trial.
On May 23, Deans’ commercial box truck allegedly ploughed into the back of the car belonging to Hadley and Gentry Eddings,, who were stopped at a traffic light. The Eddings’ 2-year-old son was killed in the crash, and an infant delivered by emergency ceasarian section in the hours after the wreck died as well.
For reasons that are not germane to this post, I’ve been in court a lot lately. When I was taking criminal defense cases, I carefully monitored the in-court attire of my clients, emphasizing that it was crucial for them to display respect for the judge and the system, as well as appropriate appreciation of the seriousness of the offenses charged. Almost without exception, defendants appearing in court today are in casual, often sloppy attire. This shows the stupidity of those appearing, the incompetence of their attorneys, and irresponsible upbringing, schooling and socialization.
Favoring those who dress appropriately for a legal proceeding is not some random and irrational bias. Attire demonstrates respect for an individual’s surroundings and everyone they come into contact with. The failure of parents and institutions to teach children that lesson good and hard at an early age handicaps individual throughout life, just as failing to train them to make eye contact, speak standard English, use complete sentences, avoid vulgarity and profanity, and to be polite.
Is this a class problem? Of course it is, but it is also one of the easiest ones to address. Heck, Henry Higgins made the point as clearly as it can be made in Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” and its musical adaptation, “My Fair Lady” (lyrics by Alan J. Lerner):
Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?
This verbal class distinction, by now,
Should be antique. If you spoke as she does, sir,
Instead of the way you do,
Why, you might be selling flowers, too!
An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,
The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.
What is true of speech is true of attire. Thus the North Carolina judge—I can’t find her name—qualifies as an ethics hero for making explicit what should be obvious, but inexplicably is not.
The issue also relates to the lively and thoughtful debate, on this post, regarding so-called institutional racism. If a sub-culture fails its responsibility to its young to teach age-old principles of respect for authority, basic rules of demeanor and attire and the skills of inoffensive and trust-building social interaction, it cannot credibly blame the inevitable results on racism or class bias. Presented with two individuals charged with the same crimes, one of whose choice of dress and demeanor shows respect for the system, appreciation of the seriousness of the offense, deference to the judge and acceptance of the legitimacy and dignity of the court and the other who appears carelessly dressed and is inarticulate and rude, juries and judges will be far more likely to trust the character of the former.
That’s not bias, and it’s not racism. That is common sense.
That is civilization.