Tennessee Judge Under Fire For Warning Female Lawyers About Professional Dress

taylor_royceCircuit Judge Royce Taylor in Murfreesboro, Tennessee is embroiled in an interesting controversy after he urged female attorneys to dress appropriately in courthouses. It is common for judges to instruct male attorneys on the need to wear jackets, ties, and appropriate shoes. However, for a male judge to write a memo on female dress is a different matter for some. It raises a long-standing issue for attorneys. Male attorneys privately grumble that there appears to be no serious limits on female dress codes while men are called to account before judges.

Taylor admits that he was nervous in even raising the issue: “Being an older white male judge I realized I’m at a disadvantage to try to talk about this subject. I’m certainly not a fashion guru.”

In his notice, Taylor noted that “the subject of attorneys’ dress” had come up at the recent Bench/Bar Committee meeting and said:

The unanimous opinion was that the women attorneys were not being held to the same standard as the men. It was requested that the judges require all attorneys to dress professionally. . . .
I have advised some women attorneys that a jacket with sleeves below the elbow is appropriate or a professional dress equivalent.

That notice raised a firestorm. Nashville-based attorney Karla Miller told USA Today that she was “slightly offended,” by the judge’s action, though she admitted to seeing female lawyers dressed unprofessionally.

I think that there does have to be some uniformity or no rule at all for lawyers. I have seen often seen female lawyers wearing sweaters, long-sleeved t-shirts, and sleeveless shirts into courts that appear more appropriate for a sporting event. Most of these cases involve pre-trial or post-trial motion hearings without a jury. Obviously most female attorneys are professional and would never wear such outfits into a courtroom. However, some do and most judges, particularly male judges, are uncomfortable to raise the issue.

Teachers have the same dilemma. I was at a recent lunch with colleagues when another professor raised his concern over telling a female student that she was dress inappropriately for a moot court competition. Another expressed the same concern over correcting how a student was speaking informally in a competition. I have heard the same concern privately from judges.

I do not see how the above instructions from the judge should be viewed as insulting or inappropriate. The problem is not simply the decorum of the courtroom but also the inimical impact on clients. Represented parties may not be in a position to object to the dress of their counsel. However, when a lawyer shows up in gym shoes or a sweater, it can create a poor impression for a judge or a jury. Both male and female colleagues will often point out such dress problems to me at the courthouse with shared dissatisfaction but no one says anything, including me. There is a fear that you will be viewed as sexist or prejudiced in some way.

What do you think should be the standard?

31 thoughts on “Tennessee Judge Under Fire For Warning Female Lawyers About Professional Dress”

  1. I’m with Justice Holmes and firefly. A dress code is fine, but it should be defined and uniform.

  2. As a female professional who has sometimes bristled at overly strict office dress codes, I see nothing wrong with the judge’s memo. It couldn’t have been any milder. If Ms. Miller was offended by this, how the hell does she handle what goes on in court?

  3. A written dress code is fine if it isn’t overly restrictive. As an attorney, I can’t imagine going into a court room without wearing a suit and tie. I have seen judges suggest strongly to attorneys pushing the limits to correct their clothing issues.

  4. With two children and six grandchildren and all of their assorted friends who have, for the last forty or so years, used my home as a gathering and meeting place, I can not tell you how many conversations regarding court appearances I have overheard. “My dad, my mom, my attorney (for the more serious charges like underage consumption or shoplifting) told me to dress up for my court appearance. Gotta show respect for the Judge.”

    Amazing there are attorneys out there who don’t know this.

  5. Maybe a standard dress code, as others mentioned is good, but it can be too restrictive if left to some.

    Some judges are fairly sensitive to this and I have seen them give the boot to defendants who came in to district court dressed inappropriately and told to change clothes and return later in the afternoon. But in those cases it was obvious they should have dressed better, especially when their neck is on the line.

    FWIW I usually don’t care for dress codes, but there is some need to show respect where appropriate.

  6. Empire Cookie,

    Always a pleasure to see you about… Now, was that female attorney that was appointed to the bench you per chance….

  7. A judge can sway the questioning by an attorney, one would think proper attire would be advantages.

  8. Professional attire is in the eye of the beholder. While it is obvious that a certain mode of attire might be harmful to the client’s case I don’t think there is any proof of that except for subjective criticism. A written, specific dress code should be what particular Judges, or the local court systems produce if they wish to enforce rules. I agree with Firefly.

  9. I do not believe in such standards, at least not to this level of demand. I see no logical reason a man cannot make a valid legal argument in jeans and a plain t-shirt with sneakers. If I can teach a class of college kids in casual dress I don’t see why a lawyer cannot argue a case in casual dress.

    I suppose I would prohibit any messaging by dress; you can’t wear a t-shirt that says “my client is being framed!” You cannot protest the trial by dressing as a clown or cartoon figure, or with a noose around your neck. I suppose I wouldn’t let either gender argue their case dressed in Victoria’s Secret attire.

    But if an attorney thinks the jury will judge them based on their appearance, or the client believes that, then the attorney should choose to dress as they deem appropriate to avoiding such negative consequence. I would leave that to their professional judgment.

    Decorum in the court can be enforced by the Bailiff and contempt of court charges, rules on dress are not necessary for that.

  10. About twenty or so years ago, there was a judge in Mississippi who wrote a similar order. However, his order specified that women lawyers should wear skirts, and the skirt should go no lower than just below the knee. He was offended by women wearing long skirts for some reason. IIRC, long skirts for women had come into fashion along about that time, and ankle length skirts were commonly seen attire. Guess he was a leg man.

    At any rate, there was so much negative publicity that he backed down on his order.

    As for the classroom, micro-miniskirts were fashionable when I was in graduate school in the 1960s. I noticed a lot of professors spent a lot of time looking at the ceiling tiles while lecturing.

  11. There’s a judge here in Madison that is well known for having a female cleavage rule, and it’s quite Victorian. The judge is a woman.

  12. We wear robes here above the 49th parallel, and everyone looks fabulous in them (no, AY, not that kind of fabulous, just fabulous). I remember a story from the ’70s where a judge refused to allow a female lawyer who was wearing black pants under her robes to speak in his court. He was outraged that a woman would wear pants and not a dress or skirt and told her she could come back when she was “appropriately” dressed. She went into the washroom, took off her pants, pinned the edges of the robes together so they would not fly open, and went back into the courtroom. It’s not unusual for robes to be as long or a bit longer than a skirt/dress so the men in the courtroom couldnt be sure what she had done. As much of a neanderthal as he was, the judge did not have the nerve to ask her what she was wearing under her robes. So the case proceeded with her wearing only her robes. She was appointed to the bench some years later.

  13. $500 haircuts, check.. $5000 suit, check…. $10,000 watch,… check.
    Brief case, worth more than most jurors cars, check.

    The facade of justice is blinding in its bling.

    JusticHolmes,… “Wigs and robes, anyone?”

    Actually YES. .. :o)

  14. Why not provide a written dress code so everyone can know what is expected: arms covered, no t-shirts, no sneakers, etc.?

  15. Now, if he were a gay male…. He could biatch all he wanted… Long live the queen in the black dress…. I agree with him though….

  16. I agree 100% with the judge from Tennnessee. Lawyers entering a courtroom should be dressed be professionally, not like a bum. Case closed (pardon rhe pun)

  17. this is sexist, if I am on a jury I want to see some h00ters and a hot body. Male lawyers are just worried that an attractive opponent will sway the jury.

    Professional dress? he11 no, show me your T*Ts.

  18. The onslaught of “court TV” shows seems to have given rise to an lackadaisical attitude regarding appropriate attire for a courtroom. I may be considered old fashioned but I agree with the judge on this one. Now, if we could only do something about the appellants dress behaviors.

  19. As long as by “dress professionally” he doesn’t mean wear a dress or heels or make up. I am fine with that. Men and women should be held to the SAME standard. It is important for the officers of the court to dress respectfully. I am not sure how length of sleeve plays into that but I sort of see his point. Wigs and robes, anyone? Now about those court reporters? 🙂

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