Black Lives [Pins] Matter: Ohio Attorney Jailed For Refusing To Take Off Pin In Court

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 1.00.14 PMThere is an interesting controversy out of Youngstown, Ohio where attorney Andrea Burton have been jailed for five days for contempt in refusing to take off her Black Lives Matter pin. Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Robert Milich ruled that such pins are a distraction and inappropriate for the courtroom, but Burton refused to yield.


Burton was removed from the courtroom for her contempt, but released on a stay of the five-day sentence pending appeal. She will have quite a challenge. Judges are afforded considerable discretion on enforcing dress codes in their courtrooms. While American flags are allowed (as are religious symbols like crosses), political badges or pins or symbols are routinely excluded. In 1997, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Berner v. Delahanty that “lawyers have no absolute right to wear such feelings on their sleeves” and that a judge’s “policy of prohibiting all political pins is a reasonable means of ensuring the appearance of fairness and impartiality in the courtroom.”

The difficult question is where to draw the line without engaging in content-based censorship. How about a Steelers pin or (to add a combination of religion and sports) a Chicago Bears pin? How about a pro-life symbol or a ribbon for AIDS survivors or breast cancer or fallen police officers? This is why I favor a policy of no pins or symbols on attorneys or staff in an courtroom.

I believe that Milich was correct in his ruling and that Burton was equally wrong in refusing to comply with the order.

Many courts do not expressly prohibit political symbols like the one in Houston:

Proper attire is required in the courtrooms. The following accessories and items of clothing are not permitted at the City of Houston Municipal Courts:

Shorts (all types)
Hats (all types, excluding religious headwear)
Muscle Shirts and Tank Tops
Any item of clothing that displays offensive, vulgar, racist, sexist, gang-related, obscene language and/or graphics.

However, political symbols can be used to appeal to jurors to secure favorable treatment. They can also distract a jury or instill hostility toward a defendant. In my view, attorneys should not wear such items as a general matter.

What do you think?

37 thoughts on “Black Lives [Pins] Matter: Ohio Attorney Jailed For Refusing To Take Off Pin In Court”

  1. Paul S,

    Then defense lawyers interviewed me based on education questions.

    Asked about grade point averages. High school GPA 4.0. Military top 10% honor graduate. College, university, science, engineering, political science GPA 4.0.

    That’s what killed me, not the slick dressing.

  2. As for the subject of lapel pins generally, for myself, unless they are part of a uniform I regard them as manifestly indicative of Pride and as such I choose not wear these.

  3. Jury summons story

    Yeah, I got 1 and in waiting room. Then got called into judges chambers for a capital murder case.

    Perspective jurors are being interviewed by judge, prosecutor & defendants legal team for over an hour. Then my name was called. Interview was strange. Judge focuses on clothing I’m wearing.

    Judge asks question about jacket, is that Gore-Tex? Answered yes. Then Judge rubs my shirt & asks what is it? Answered custom made Egyptian cotton. Then prosecutor asks question about waist belt. Answered alligator belt, not fake. Then judge asks about pants. Answered Canali Milano Italy slacks. Then both judge & prosecutor stare at shoes. Answered custom made lizard shoes.

    1. Perry – did you get selected for the jury or were you over-dressed?

  4. BLM has LAPEL PINS, now?

    And, I’m guessing, bumper stickers, stamps/indicia for envelopes, balloons, hats, shirts, and all other sort of promotional items?

    I’m in the wrong line of work …

  5. Sort of makes one understand why some countries have their judges and lawyers wear the same robes, wigs, and hats. With a robe, wig, or a hat, the lawyer is not an individual with a potential bias but the law, neutral and blind to bias. The lawyer should not be bringing her personal bias into the people’s court. This should be true in government forums of this importance.

  6. I agree with the judge. Any kind of political button would be wrong.

  7. Spot on, Darren! That lawyer lady is just looking to draw attention to herself. She should be thinking of her client.

  8. It’s always good to hear from Mike Appleton. I’m not an attorney but have been in many courtrooms and in front of many judges. They are the king and queens of their small fiefdom. There is a women judge I know who is downright Victorian w/ female attorneys. This judge routinely tells female attorneys to leave her courtroom because of inappropriate attire. She is obsessive about cleavage. I’m not talking about having those bad boys hanging out. I mean if even a fraction of an inch of cleavage is seen when a woman leans over, they are kicked out. I have seen over the past 40 years of my going into courtrooms a more laid back attitude by judges.

  9. Somewhere in the midst of this controversy there is the matter of the defendants’ best interest.

  10. Lets say that you are a black male lawyer in front of a white female judge. You have a button on your shirt which asks the question: “Where da White women at?”

    Suppose you are a white male lawyer in front of a black female judge. Same button.

    Should there be two different standards of conduct imposed against the button wearing person?

    What movie was that phrase uttered?

  11. Symbols are a manner of “Speech” as such, speech not subject to rebuttal are disallowed in a courtroom of impartiality . . .

  12. I find the controversy absurd on a number of levels. First, the level of emotional maturity on display by both the judge and the attorney in this case is an embarrassment. Second, the discretionary banning of pins determined by a court to be unduly political is an invitation to arbitrariness. Third, the focus of both the lawyer and the judge should be directed strictly to the substantive legal issues intended to be heard.

    I have accumulated a number of pins over the years. There are my old Knights of the Altar pin from my altar boy days, my Jaycees past president pin, American flag pins, miscellaneous pins of forgotten origin and a series of pins I receive annually attached to a cordial letter from the Florida Supreme Court thanking me for legal aid work. I choose to wear none of them, but only because I do not wish either a judge or a jury to make judgments about my case or my client based upon irrelevant considerations. Having said that, I believe the decision as to whether to wear any sort of lapel pin should be a matter for the wearer.

    In this instance, the judge objected to the pin not because it was political, but because he disliked the political message. The lawyer’s refusal to remove the pin was an act of petulant and shortsighted defiance. Neither actor has reason to be proud.

  13. @Don

    You said, ” If you are going to let the unaltered flag pin in the courtroom, you have to let in the BLM flag pin.”

    No you don’t. There isn’t any such rule. That is only your opinion. The Court does not have to be “neutral” towards the American flag. Sheeesh, the Judge swore an oath to obey, serve, and protect the United States Constitution. Of America. The Court does not have to pretend that it is either “non-American” nor “non-biased in favor of America.”

    What you propose is the “fairness” argument of a child, who thinks Mommy must treat all her kids exactly the same. Sooo, if Johnny gets Straight A’s and gets a $10 bill, and Suzie gets straight C’s and gets squat, then OMG they aren’t being treated the same!

    The kind of “fairness” that you advocate is the basis of the idiocy which demands that we not discriminate in favor of Americans vis a vis illegal aliens! That we must somehow treat everybody the same. Hogwash! Citizenship laws are by their very nature DISCRIMINATORY! They favor the citizen over the non citizen.

    What your opinion does is to blur distinctions to the point to where there are little or no standards about anything,

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  14. Disagree with you Squeeky. What if someone shows up with a flag pin that has “BLM” in black prominently placed on the pin? If you are going to let the unaltered flag pin in the courtroom, you have to let in the BLM flag pin.

    You may not like the BLM flag pin, but I don’t see how you keep it out if you let in the unaltered flag pin.

    If I’m the judge, no pins. I’d have a US flag in the courtroom and people can pay their respects to the flag without wearing a pin. You can put your pin on outside the courtroom, once you are in front of the press so they can see how patriotic you are.

  15. You can carry the “no pin” thing too far. Most courtrooms I have been in have an American flag, a state flag, some kind of state seal on the wall, with pictures of the governor or the state supreme court outside in the hallway. There is nothing wrong with the American flag in an American court room. And silliness to put that on a par with a “Black Lives Matter” BeeEss pin, or a rainbow flag pin, or a “My Little Pony” button.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  16. I think you must ban all pins or let them all in, subject to bans on obscenity, etc. That goes for American flag pins, too. If you let in a US flag pin, do you have to let in flag pins that have been modified to make a point? Both types of pins have a strong “speech” element. I don’t think it is proper to treat them differently.

    Dress codes which are “content neutral ” as to speech are a completely different matter. I have no problem with them, as a general rule. But some judges are nuts. Federal District Court Judge A. Andrew Hauk, now deceased, would berate women attorneys who showed up in his courtroom if they did not wear a dress or skirt. Hillary in her pantsuits would have been jailed for wearing them if she showed up in his courtroom.

  17. “You go girl!” (Straight to the pokey for five days. Let’s she if that cures her of her stupid attack.)

  18. Hooray for the Judge! Black Lives Matter was originally begun when Michael Brown was shot. When proven that Brown had committed crimes and attacked and injured a policeman and never had his hands in the air yelling don’t shoot, BLM continues their disruption. They chain themselves together to block a freeway. What if an ambulance has a critical patient and can’t get through that illegal demonstration? BLM has caused more trouble for interfering with people’s rights. Put her in jail.

  19. Well, “Black Lives Matter” is definitely political, and arguably racist. I wonder what an “All Lives Matter” would imply? That is why it is better to ban all such displays, and concentrate on the legal matters at bar.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  20. Certainly, you are correct about Supreme Court precedent. But there was no jury trial involved in this situation, so there was no chance anyone would be appealed to improperly or distracted.

    I think political flag pins and religious symbols are used to influence jurors, but they are allowed. Either all such symbols must be disallowed or there is discrimination on the basis of speech.

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