The tradition-bound Supreme Court sometimes goes to peculiar extremes. So it is that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who chose to adorn his black robe with gold stripes on the sleeve, enforces a strict dress code in the courtroom.
Last week, when a fidgety lawyer in the front row slipped off her suit jacket to reveal a hot pink sweater underneath, courtroom regulars knew that wouldn't last. Indeed, it was only a few minutes before a police officer intervened and she was working her arms back into navy sleeves.
A few weeks earlier, veteran ABC reporter Jackie Judd, new to the legal beat, entered the courtroom wearing her press pass around her neck, as is the custom elsewhere in town, and was stopped by an officer. He said the chief justice doesn't like to see hanging press passes.
"How does he feel about earrings?" quipped Judd, taken aback by the sartorial code.
It's different under the vaulted ceiling.
Lawyers and journalists must wear suits or other "business attire." The rules are strictly interpreted and strictly executed. And then some.
When Justice Department lawyers argue cases, the men wear dark gray morning coats and tails while the women dress in dark suits. About two years ago, when a female assistant solicitor general wore a dark brown suit (skirt well below the knee), the chief justice swiftly sent word of his displeasure. Brown will not do. Since then, women in the solicitor general's office have worn black.
"The dress code is part of the court's desire to maintain the atmosphere that one might expect in the nation's highest court," said Kathy Arberg, the court's public information officer. She said many journalists who come to the court often anticipate more exacting rules--no such codes exist for the galleries in Congress or at the White House--and she's seen reporters pull a tie from a briefcase to get into the court. Jacket and tie for men, that's clear. But for women, the "business attire" standard can be difficult to navigate.
A few years ago, New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse brought an editor to the court to see an oral argument. Shortly after she and Elizabeth Becker entered the courtroom, a police officer told Becker her dress was inappropriate and that she needed to put on a jacket or leave the room. Becker was wearing a two-piece navy blue ensemble from Paris. In the grand scheme of things, the outfit was perfectly appropriate for official Washington. But the court is clearly in its own space.
Greenhouse quickly retrieved a spare jacket from the pressroom for Becker so she could watch the arguments. But Greenhouse, who has covered the court for more than two decades, believed the treatment of her editor shabby enough to complain to court officials. Soon after, Greenhouse was told that the standard for female journalists had been reviewed and would be broadened to reflect the times.
For those in the public section of the courtroom, the rules are much looser. The public is simply told to wear "appropriate" clothing, and jeans are often seen in that gallery. However, people in those seats, too, are not allowed to wear plastic identification cards, such as the one Judd had around her neck. Police officials say the plastic ID cards can sometimes catch the lights from the ceiling and be distracting.
The public is also warned not to don sunglasses or display any political buttons or ID tags of any type. People are urged not to bring infants or young children into the courtroom. The setting is so silent--save for the voices of the justices and lawyers--a peep from the gallery would likely stop the proceedings.
"It is an institution bound by tradition, and the dress code is part of that," said Kenneth S. Geller, a former assistant solicitor general and co-author of a book on Supreme Court practice. He recalled that Rehnquist's predecessor, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, also scrutinized the attire of government lawyers, complaining if they wore light gray vests rather than dark gray ones or sported button-down shirts with their tails.
The court's guide for counsel says: "If formal attire is worn, it should conform with custom."
And that's why when Rehnquist put those four gold stripes on each of his sleeves four years ago, it was national news.