Judicial Attire: Black Is the New Black – Florida Supreme Court Emphasizes Solemnity of Judicial Office

In Re: Amendments to The Florida Rules of Judicial Administration – New Rule 2.340, Case No. SC15-497 (Fla. Sept. 10, 2015)

Have you ever wondered why judges and justices wear robes, especially black robes? The tradition of wearing judicial robes dates back to the judges of the King’s Bench in 15th century England. Some courts in England required different colors of robes depending on the season or type of case. In the United States Supreme Court, justices wore red robes until 1801, when Chief Justice John Marshall set a new tradition by wearing a black robe for his swearing-in ceremony. Since that time, most judges and justices in America have been wearing black. The color black is perceived as a symbol of the dignity and solemnity of the judicial office. The robe itself, in covering most of the body except the head, is a visible symbol that a litigant or attorney appearing before a judge is dealing not with an individual, but with the court and the State and principles of justice.

On September 10, 2015, the Florida Supreme Court sua sponte (on its own initiative) adopted a new rule, Rule 2.340 of the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration, to emphasize the dignity and solemnity of the office of judge as the one charged with dispensing equal justice under the law. The rule seeks to uphold the dignity of judicial proceedings by requiring judges to wear a solid black robe with no embellishment.

The Florida Rules of Judicial Administration apply to administrative matters in all Florida courts. The rules are intended to promote the “speedy and inexpensive determination of every proceeding to which they are applicable,” and they supersede all conflicting rules and statutes. The Supreme Court often considers proposals from a committee regarding amendments or new rules. In this case, the Court initiated the proposal for the new Rule 2.340 and solicited comments from the Rules of Judicial Administration Committee, the Conference of County Court Judges, the Conference of Circuit Court Judges, and the Conference of District Court of Appeal Judges.

After considering comments and reflecting on the Court’s responsibility to provide clear direction when needed to promote public trust and confidence in the judicial branch, the Florida Supreme Court adopted new Rule 2.340 to provide: “During any judicial proceeding, robes worn by a judge must be solid black with no embellishment.” As support, the Court cited similar rules from Alaska, California, and Wisconsin.

The Court pointed out the impact that the dignity and uniformity of judges’ attire can have on litigants and the public, as solemn and uniform attire honors the judicial office and helps maintain confidence in our legal system. As the “arbiters of facts and law for the resolution of disputes,” Florida’s judges are the “face of the judicial branch of government” and “a highly visible symbol of government under the rule of law.” Thus, “when a litigant appears in court, it is the presiding judge who sets the tone of the proceedings, puts those in attendance at ease, and maintains order and decorum throughout the proceedings, all of which establishes confidence in the legal process,” the Court explained.

In the spirit of those principles, the Florida Supreme Court noted that “presiding judges wearing different colored robes or robes with varying embellishments” could result in uncertainty or confusion for those coming before our courts. “The possibility that the unique attire of the judge assigned to one’s case could raise these concerns and thereby diminish public trust and confidence in the proceedings is not acceptable,” the Court ruled. Thus, “promoting uniformity in judicial attire, by requiring all judges to wear unembellished, solid black robes, will no doubt avoid these concerns and promote public trust and confidence.”

Of course, analogous principles apply to attorneys, who normally wear respectable business suits or business-like dresses in court, as they are officers of the court and have a role in upholding the dignity of the judicial system. For both lawyers and judges, the style and formality of court attire can have a positive impact in recognizing the importance of court proceedings. As the Supreme Court observed, “The people of Florida have a right to expect equal justice every day, in every court in this state….” If you are involved in an appeal, or you want advice about your rights, the attorneys of The Law Offices of Robin Bresky are available to discuss how they can help achieve equal justice under the law.