As I’ve mentioned in the past on Twitter, a day that begins with the donning of socks is, in most ways that matter, a day that has already been lost. But, I’m also craven in matters of fashion and matters of judicial preference. So, if judges want socks, as a member of the bar, I wear socks. However, this practitioner in Blackford County, Indiana is made of sterner stuff (pdf). (h/t Indiana Law Blog).
The judge observed that this otherwise appropriately attired practitioner was not wearing socks. (I actually had never really contemplated a judge looking all that intently at my feet – I’d probably better remember to polish my shoes!) The judge did what a decent judge will do when bothered by something somewhat incidental to a lawyer’s performance in court — he took the guy aside privately and said that he’d like the lawyer to wear socks in the courtroom. According to the subsequent court order, the lawyer responded that he hates wearing socks. (And what right thinking member of society doesn’t?) But, then he probably went a (sockless) step too far, telling the judge that until he saw orders or other legal authority to the contrary, he’d continue his sockless ways.
This challenge did not present a great deal of difficulty for the judge, who presumably creates legal authority all the time. He crafted the order linked above. The judge noted the local rule requiring that attorneys wear “proper business attire” while in court. The judge went further to find, that socks constitute proper business attire “for male members of the bar presenting cases before the court.” (Where is the Patriarchy when you need it?!?) For good measure, the judge also noted that the attorney in question had been observed without a tie in an open collar shirt.
On a more serious note, I’ll just offer some observations with the recognition that what I know about this issue is solely from the context of that order. The events may well have looked different from the perspective of the attorney in question, so this isn’t meant as a critique of that person. Dress codes are almost entirely arbitrary in any situation. They are not dissimilar from codes of proper speech, prohibiting “bad” words — the choice of which are inevitably arbitrary. But, compliance with these arbitrary standards is one way we show respect or at least deference to the cultures and authorities that seek to impose these rules. With respect to courts and the rule of law, this insistence on proper attire drifts into “medium is the message” territory. If everyone involved in the legal process were, for example, dressed up like they were going to a Jimmy Buffet concert, the impact of the legal process would be different. Sure, you’d still have the guys with the guns behind the court orders. But you’d probably need more of them because there would be less reflexive obedience to the rule of law if the system were less formal.
Lawyers are part of this process and, as such, should genuflect to the Court except in those matters and in such ways as justice requires to the contrary. Fashion isn’t one of them. And if the judge offers correction in private, take the hint and don’t encourage him to make the correction public.