When it comes to women's fashion, there is a myriad of stylish yet classy courtroom-attire options—pantsuits, blouses and skirts, dresses; the combinations are endless. So why are women still getting admonished for how they are dressed in the courtroom? Today, increasing numbers of women in law are attempting to juggle different judges' preferences for dress when they enter the courtroom, wondering, "Should I wear a skirt, or will the jury be staring at my legs during my opening remarks? If I wear pants, will the judge find me to be underdressed?"
In 1999, Limp Bizkit's "Nookie" was the most popular rock song of the year, MySpace.com was officially launched on the Internet, President Bill Clinton was acquitted by the United States Senate in his impeachment trial for—well, everyone knows what that was all about—and two women lawyers in a Seattle, WA, courtroom were admonished for wearing pantsuits rather than skirts.
Wait...huh? That's right. Page Ulrey, a deputy prosecutor, and Cindy Arends, a public defender, had just finished a day in the courtroom at the King County Superior Court with Judge Jeanette Burrage presiding. Both women were wearing very "put together" pantsuits and dress shoes when Burrage pulled them aside after the morning court session.
As Ulrey recalls the incident, Burrage said something to the effect of "In my courtroom, I require that men wear suits and ties and women wear skirts or dresses, and I'm going to require that both of you, in the future, in my courtroom, wear skirts or dresses." She continued, saying that she wanted to see something more "formal" in the courtroom. When Arends heard this demand, she told Burrage that she was no longer inclined to appear in her court again. Ulrey actually would not have been able to comply with the demand simply because she did not own a skirt-suit combination. If she needed to wear one the following day, she would have to rush to the nearest mall after work instead of focusing on strengthening her case for court.
Apparently Ulrey's black, tailored Ann Taylor pantsuit was not formal enough for Burrage. After Arends and Ulrey explained their side of the issue, Burrage agreed to allow them to appear for the remainder of the trial in pantsuits—but only this one time. They would be expected to appear in skirts or dresses in the future.
Later on, though, Burrage sought advice from 49 other superior court judges in her county, all of whom disagreed with her outdated courtroom fashion philosophy. Burrage later withdrew her comments.
"I think lawyers should be allowed to be individuals and to have a certain unique style that's their own. I think you also do need to show proper respect for the court, but I think to say that for women, wearing pantsuits means not showing proper respect for the court is a very antiquated idea and is really not fair to women," said Ulrey. "I feel more confident and more like I'm there to be heard versus to be seen and taken a little bit more seriously wearing a pantsuit, personally. I think that if I were in a jurisdiction where pantsuits weren't allowed, it would be a real difficulty for me. I would feel pressured to be someone I'm not and to dress in a way that's not terribly comfortable for me."
Although this sort of reaction to something as "risqué" as a pantsuit is quite rare on the West Coast these days, it is actually quite common on the East Coast. "It's pretty common on the East Coast, and other places near the East Coast, for judges to require skirts or dresses to be worn in the courtroom," said Ulrey, who attended law school and worked as a lawyer in Boston.
There are still many courts and district attorney's offices on the East Coast that are actively enforcing dress codes that prohibit women from wearing pants. One of these locations is in Orange County in New York. "Skirts and dresses—no pants at all," confirmed the receptionist at the district attorney's office.
About 2,500 miles away in Missoula, MT, Jenny Cochrane, a 3L from the University of Montana experienced a similar incident, although she was reprimanded for not wearing pants. While working on her clerkship at a federal courthouse, Cochrane was approached by her general counsel, who commented that her dress was "not professional enough." Her skirt fell an inch or two above her knees, and this was in the heat of summer.
"After that point, I wore things that didn't show my skin. I didn't change the level of professional attire I wore at all, but he still told me a couple of times how very professional I was, so I realized that the only thing he really wanted was that I didn't show my skin. I just wore pants from then on," she said.
According to an anonymous lawyer from Nassau County, NY, Nassau County District Court Judge Lea Ruskin makes her rulings based on how well she likes what the defendant is wearing. Defendants who appear in court dressed in business wear allegedly tend to be given lighter sentences and fines than those who show up in jeans and t-shirts.
Once, this anonymous attorney's colleague arranged an experiment to test this theory, which many of the county's lawyers also entertained. When his female client showed up in Ruskin's court wearing a high-fashion designer outfit and Prada shoes, carrying a Prada purse, she pleaded guilty to an A misdemeanor, for which Nassau County judges usually sentence probation. The well-dressed defendant walked away with a conditional discharge.
"Everybody knows her policy. Nobody really talks about or says anything—we all just kind of get a kick out of it," the Nassau County attorney said. "I first noticed it when I was an assistant district attorney, and I thought it was a little strange, to say the least, but as I've continued to practice, to be perfectly honest, I've found opportunities to take advantage of it. I make sure that when my clients appear before her, they look good—they dress in their best finery."
Supposedly, Ruskin's taste in clothing does not waiver; if defendants are dressed nicely, she rarely deprives them of minor sentences. The attorney went on to say, "I've seen her take multiple DWI [Driving While Intoxicated] offenders, particularly females who are extremely well-dressed—I've actually seen her make comments from the bench complimenting them, on the record, no less, that the court reporter's taken down—and she ends up giving these people extremely light sentences as compared with the other judges in the courthouse, and this is a consistent, consistent practice of hers."
It has even been said that Ruskin uses this method when assigning arraignments, setting bail based on the subject's attire. She allegedly justifies this by saying that "those who dress worse show less respect for the judicial system, deserving a higher bail amount."
"She's out of her mind, but she makes it easy to practice defense law in Nassau County," the anonymous attorney said.
David Corson, an attorney for the Nassau County District Attorney's Office who has appeared before Ruskin many times, can also bear witness to Ruskin's antics. "Yes, I've noticed that, and I've heard of it through the grapevine," he said. Like the anonymous attorney, Corson did not seem to be bothered by the issue. "She can be pretty strict, but she is one of the better judges on the stand," he explained.
Ruskin began her career in the late 1960s after graduating from Arcadia University with a bachelor's degree and Hofstra University School of Law with a Juris Doctor. Before she slipped on her judge's robe in 1996, Ruskin served as Assistant District Attorney for Nassau County, in which capacity she managed all areas of prosecution, from arraignments to trials. One would think she'd have some sympathy for those on the other side of the bench.
Perhaps Ruskin was an Italian fashion designer in a past life, or maybe she aspired to be a fashion editor but just never made it. Either way, her passion for fashion seems to have bled onto her judicial career, potentially making a mockery of the system.
So what's all the fuss about? Why not have judges and lawyers wear sandals and skirts in the courtroom? And while we're at it, why not have the judge go without a robe on Fridays? In contrast with all of the fashion "laws" in American courtrooms, the dress code in American Samoa seems to be the most laid-back and hassle-free. Mark Hales, the Assistant Attorney General of American Samoa, said that a visit to the courtroom is like a day at the beach, as Hawaiian t-shirts, lavalavas (rectangular cloths worn like kilts or skirts), and sandals are staples of every lawyer and judge's wardrobe.
American Samoa's high court rules are as follows: "All attorneys and court personnel whose duties are in the courtroom shall be neatly groomed. Except as hereinafter provided, legal counsel must wear a shirt, tie, and long pants or, in lieu thereof, a shirt, tie, and lavalava. On Fridays (Samoan Day), male counsel may wear an ula (beads) in lieu of a tie. Female counsel must wear dresses, pantsuits, or skirts and blouses."
"No one wears a suit. The only time you see a suit down here, you know that they are an off-island lawyer," Hales said. Maybe mainland-American courtroom fashion should take a few hints from American Samoa's tropical, relaxed trends.
"Talkin' 'bout My Generation..."
Concern about dress in the American courtroom has even manifested itself to law students and young professionals who are just starting to merge into the legal field. It seems that many of them have their own ideas about which fashions should be permitted in the courtroom and which ones should be overruled.
Zak Dabbas, a student at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, OH, has observed that the fashion trends and styles in the courtroom seem to be several years behind what is actually happening in the grand scheme of the fashion world.
Dabbas has noticed a bit of a trend in his women classmates' dress: "When firms visit our school to interview, normally well-dressed and beautifully composed females become utterly frumpy. Gone are the nice, feminine styles of clothing, and they have been replaced with baggy, unflattering suits. This change seems shocking to me and has led to my realization that older generations view appropriate, professional dress very differently than my generation does."
Dabbas hopes that the rest of his generation can get it together and not be influenced and brainwashed into following the outdated and unbecoming fashions of the older generation. "Nobody will take you seriously in the business world if you look ridiculous—maybe with the exception of Donald Trump," said Dabbas.
Danielle Bilotto, a new lawyer who has been practicing in the Chicago area since last May, also considers herself a sharp dresser in the law community and is a bit annoyed with the irksome fashion trends that have been shoved down the throats of many lawyers. According to Bilotto, the clothing colors seen in court are like "a morbid rainbow—black, navy, gray, brown, and maybe a dark olive green if someone is 'pushing the limits.'"
Bilotto said she finds that her sense of style can sometimes be challenged or compromised by the boring and drab garb that she sees around her in the courtroom; nevertheless, she is still able to pull together a professional yet trendy and captivating appearance. "I don't think going all out like Reese Witherspoon's character in the movie Legally Blonde is the route to take; however, I see nothing wrong with dressing appropriately while maintaining a sense of style. Current fashion trends do conflict somewhat, but I think if you are savvy about it, you can make a fashion statement in the courtroom along with your opening statement in addressing the judge!" she said.
"I want people to recognize me," Bilotto continued. "I want to make a lasting impression on a judge, jury, and opposing counsel so that I can build my reputation. I want to be remembered as a good attorney so I can continue to expand my client base. As silly as it sounds, things like how you dress and how your business cards and marketing material look do make a difference. No one will pay attention to the face behind some 'suit'—they all look the same—but if you dress to impress, your face will be noticed and your name will be remembered."