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Judge Judy v. Versace: Who Are the Reigning Fashion Police of the Courtroom?
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With no official dress-code standard established for U.S. federal and state courts, many judges are taking it upon themselves to create and enforce their own sets of rules based on what they deem acceptable in their domains, whether it is sensible or flat-out discriminatory. Where should the line be drawn? Who should make the call regarding acceptable and unacceptable dress in the courtroom?

After speaking with a few attorneys, law students, and judges, it has become apparent that there are some misunderstandings and discrepancies throughout the United States regarding fashion in the courtroom.

Fashion Objection!

  
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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.

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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.”



 

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