Opening Statements

Florida Supreme Court orders judges to wear black robes

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Black is the new … well, black. In Florida, anyway.

Seeking to promote uniformity in judicial attire, last fall the Florida Supreme Court adopted Rule 2.340 on its own motion, which governs attire during judicial proceedings and declares that judges’ robes must be “solid black with no embellishment.” A consistent uniform, the court stated, will “promote public trust and confidence in the proceedings and the judicial system as a whole.”

Several factors led up to the order, not the least of which was a Union County judge wearing a camouflage robe, according to Jennifer Zedalis, director of trial practice at the University of Florida’s law school. “Litigants took a photo and posted it. There were complaints. While not blatantly racist, the camo robe was perceived as part of a good ol’ boy sensibility.” This isn’t a new issue in Florida, Zedalis adds. “A blue robe was spotted in Tampa, and back in the early ’90s a judge in the Keys wore a flowered robe, like a Hawaiian shirt.”

The Florida Supreme Court’s recent order explains that nonblack robes or those with braids, buttons or velvet panels might be confusing to litigants, who might wonder whether a variation on the standard black robe indicates a judge’s mood, status, tenure or ability. “The people of Florida have a right to expect equal justice every day,” the court declared.

Anticipating the new rule, some in the judicial community grumbled, saying it was unnec-essary and expressing concern that the court didn’t trust judges to exercise good judgment. And some judges prefer wearing nonblack robes for weddings and similar ceremonies. But the court noted that other states, including Alabama, Alaska and Wisconsin, have similar black-robe requirements.

Zedalis believes the order is an important affirmation of the judiciary’s independence. “Some people have thought that judges were getting too political and maybe not interpreting statutes and the Constitution in a neutral way,” she says. “So the court is right that there’s a need for the public to trust that the judiciary is independent and free of inappropriate influence. Symbols are important.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Back in Black: The Florida Supreme Court orders judges to wear black robes.”

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