Who wears a bright red robe with white fur trim around the neck, waist and sleeve? Most of us instantly think of Santa Claus, especially this time of year. If you are familiar with the legal system in Canada, however, you might have a different answer.
On ceremonial occasions, the justices of the Supreme Court of Canada wear red robes with white fur lining. Definitely a Santa look. I much prefer the black robes worn by judges here in the United States.
Why do American judges wear black robes? That is a question I have been asked many times over the years. I usually have responded with a rambling answer that touches upon formality, dignity and tradition. While I was not that far off, I never was very comfortable with my answer. So, I did a little research.
Judges have been wearing robes since medieval times. In most countries, judicial robes are black. In many, however, the official judicial costume is very elaborate.
Judges in Britain wear robes of almost every color, including red, blue, green, white, purple and pink. In some countries judicial robes have high collars, frilly cuffs, fur linings and all kinds of fancy stuff I wouldn't even try to describe. In others, judges wear wigs or hats, and in a few the judges wear medallions or chains around their neck. Judicial garb here in the United States is pretty plain.
I am perfectly OK with that.
It is uncertain when the tradition of a plain black robe started. Some historians trace the modern judicial robe to the funeral of Queen Mary in 1694, when all of Britain's judges attended the funeral wearing a black robe as a sign of mourning.
Other historians argue that today's judicial robe has its roots in the style of mourning gown worn after the death of Charles II in 1685. Whatever the origin, the tradition of the black robe spread around the globe and has continued to this day.
Our legal system is patterned after that of England, and many of our current traditions are British holdovers. Judges in England still wear wigs.
I am thankful that tradition did not survive here. One story is that the wig tradition was discarded due to a disagreement between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Adams, our second president, wanted American judges to look like the judges of England, with fancy red robes and wigs. Jefferson wanted our judges to dress like businessmen. A compromise was reached wherein judges would wear black robes but no wigs.
Way to go Jefferson.
Still, why the robe? The best answer I have found is that the robe conveys the "formal gravity and dignity of justice." In other words, the business of the court is serious and everyone will be expected to conduct themselves in a formal and dignified manner.
As a practical matter, the robe works for me. I like to dress for comfort, and would rather not wear a suit all day. Dress slacks, a dress shirt and a tie and I am good to go.
The black judicial robe: traditional and practical.
Just don't ask me to wear one of those silly wigs.
As always, remember it is your court.
Paul Rasmussen is a District Court Judge in the 9th Judicial District. He is chambered in Clearwater County and works primarily in Clearwater and Hubbard counties. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org This article was submitted by Judge Steve Halsey of Wright County, Tenth Judicial District.