'Dirty old man' federal judge hits 'third rail' with his fashion advice for women lawyers

U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf acknowledges he “touched the third rail” in a blog post entitled “On being a dirty old man and how young women lawyers dress.”

Some thought the comments so “strange and bawdy” that they wondered if Kopf’s Hercules and the Umpire blog had been hacked, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports. The post spurred an Omaha World-Herald columnist to describe an initial reaction to Kopf: “Ewwww!” Above the Law also weighed in, suggesting the critiques should be about what women lawyers do, not what they wear.

The kerfuffle stems from Kopf’s “true story” about “a wonderfully talented and very pretty female lawyer. She is brilliant, she writes well, she speaks eloquently, she is zealous but not overly so, she is always prepared, she treats others, including her opponents, with civility and respect, she wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest. I especially appreciate the last two attributes.”

Kopf goes on tell of the reaction by “every female law clerk in the building” when “this fine young lawyer” appeared in a recent case. The clerks slipped in and out of the courtroom to observe the lawyer, Kopf writes.

“Acknowledging that the lawyer was really good, the consensus of the sisterhood was uniformly critical,” Kopf writes. ” ‘Unprofessional’ was the word used most often. To a woman, the law clerks seethed and sneered. They were truly upset.” (In the comments section, Kopf backtracks, saying the post was an “amalgam of more than one person and more than one event.” And he says he wasn’t referring to Court of Appeals law clerks.)

Kopf’s blog post goes on to offer these three rules for young women lawyers appearing in court:

1) You can’t win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it.

2) It is not about you. That goes double when you are appearing in front of a jury.

3) Think about the female law clerks. If they are likely to label you, like Jane Curtin, an ignorant slut behind your back, tone it down.

The Omaha World-Herald gathered some reactions from law school officials, an assistant public defender and a county prosecutor. They emphasized professionalism in dress, but some criticized Kopf for a “demeaning and distasteful” description of the woman lawyer and for a double standard. One law professor said some male lawyers in the courtroom “look like they took their suit off when they got home, crumpled it up, laid on it for a pillow and put it on the next day.”

Above the Law makes a similar point about double standards. “Men are basically given a free pass,” the blog says. “So long as they don’t show up to court looking like they just rolled out of a dumpster, they’ll be given the respect they’re due.”

Kopf followed up with a new post addressing the Omaha World-Herald columnist. “If, on balance, you think the post was harmful to the image of the federal judiciary and truly treated women as objects, I am very, very, very sorry for that, but I would ask you to pause and reread it,” Kopf wrote. “I hope you will find upon objective reflection that the mockery I make of myself and the hyperbole and somewhat mordant tone I employed, made a point worth considering.”

He acknowledges he “touched the third rail” and the blog post “generated a fair amount of perfectly fair criticism.”

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