Trial by attire: Supreme Court look should go with everything we believe in

The U.S. Supreme Court gathers for a class portrait at the start of its new term. Joining the group is the newest member, Justice Elena Kagan.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010

Thankfully, the newest member of the Supreme Court, Justice Elena Kagan, declined to mar her elegant black robe with a lace scarf, lady's tie or any other doilylike frippery for the high court's annual class portrait.

When the justices gathered for their historical snapshot Friday, the majority arrived in nearly indistinguishable robes, which is as it should be. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the lone voice of dissent. She wore -- as is her wont -- a white lace frill that flopped down the front of her chest like a hankie she'd tucked into her collar. Her judicial flourish echoed that of retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who also was inclined toward a distinctive neckline, although hers, on many occasions, resembled nothing more closely than a crisply pleated lobster bib.

Kagan wisely went with a discreet hint of delicate white fabric peeking out from the top of her robe, as did Justice Sonia Sotomayor. (They need a little something at their necks so they don't appear to be naked under their judicial uniforms.) The men, including Chief Justice John Roberts, wore basic black. None of them even went so far as to pair a bow tie with his dress shirt.

The gentlemen all had the wisdom not to mimic former chief justice William Rehnquist, who personalized his robe with four gold stripes on each sleeve. He was inspired by a character in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The populace should feel some relief that Rehnquist had not been keen on "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

One wishes that the decision to wear basic black had been unanimous. The justices' unadorned black robes carry with them an air of tradition, dignity, gravitas, as well as humility. It doesn't matter if a justice is wearing a custom-made Turnbull & Asser shirt, a Chanel suit or a tie from Charvet. All of that finery is hidden under their look-alike robes. The stark costume reminds them that while they possess great power, it should be wielded with deep humility.

In donning the robes, the justices make a visual promise that they're leaving personal idiosyncrasies, prejudices and desires outside the courtroom. They have tamped down individual preferences in service to the greater good, the general public . . . the law. The robes acknowledge that the justices have shed distractions in favor of objectivity, fairness and a common, high-minded purpose. The law is their religion. That's where they place their faith. Their piousness may be imperfect -- they are human, after all. But true devotion is worth striving for.

The robe helps to ward off hubris and self-importance. Indeed, wouldn't we be perturbed if a justice decided that a little rhinestone trim along the sleeves would be quite nice? Or what if a justice decided that a mink collar would be quite lovely in the winter?

The unadorned black garment telegraphs to the common man that he has a fighting chance in court. He's not seeking justice from a ruling class or a royal family. He's just coming before other men and women. The bland robes serve as a visual reminder of the high-minded philosophy underpinning our judicial system: Under the law, everyone is equal. Gender, religion, race and economic class don't matter.

There are those who might argue that the justices should show a bit of personality. A bit of quirkiness would humanize them and make them seem less intimidating. It would underscore their capacity for empathy -- and isn't that a desirable trait these days?

It's undeniable that Rehnquist's gold stripes reflected his personality. But they also had an evocative subtext of intimidation. Gold braids, after all, are associated with rank and prestige.

The justices should be sending a message that they are there to listen -- to truly hear what each side has to say. Their appearance should reassure folks; it shouldn't intimidate, nor should it deliver the equivalent of a wink and a nod.

Clothes have a lot to say about who we are. They are our personal riffs on our place in the world. And those flourishes of style are important and meaningful. But they have no place on the Supreme Court. The basic black robe is fashion perfection. It sends a singularly powerful message: I am here to uphold the law, without prejudice.

That message should stand alone. It does not need to be accessorized.

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