It is not at all clear why it is that federal judges, and particularly federal trial judges, wear plain black robes. Before the Founding, I am told that judges in America wore wigs and robes of various colors. Jefferson (ever the liberal except when refusing to free his own slaves) thought American judges should not wear robes or wigs. Adams, as you might imagine, took the contrary position. Someone apparently worked out a compromise, wigs were out but black robes were in.
What’s even more historically obscure is why judges have favored black at all. Historians of the robe have fought to the death over this issue. One group suggests that:
- In England, before 1694, the most popular colors for judge’s robes were green, scarlet (red) and violet – apparently, you had a choice!
- In 1694, Queen Mary II of England died and was buried in Westminster Abbey in London. At her funeral, all the judges in attendance wore their official judicial robes – but wore them in the color black as a symbol of mourning for their deceased monarch. The mourning period for the passing of Queen Mary was extended over several years and most, if not all, judges continued to wear black robes.
- By the time the mourning period had ended the wearing of black robes had been established as the norm for judges in the courtroom.
See Jerry Anderson, M.A., WHY DO JUDGES WEAR BLACK ROBES? AND WHY IS A DRUNKARD CALLED A “LUSH”? (December 7, 2011).
The other group argues that there are images predating 1694 of legal officials wearing simple black. “Clearly black robes were ‘in the mix’ so to speak before Queen Mary II died.”
Regardless, black is so, how I shall I say it, pedestrian. It does not properly reflect our superior status as FEDERAL TRIAL JUDGES. After all, the Constitution makes our salaries immune from the sequester. Personally, we don’t have to make any sacrifice at all while Congress destroys the judiciary.
If we want to throw money around for “real-time” and court reporters because it saves us from working our poor little fingers to the bone writing notes, well, then, great men and women are entitled to their prerogatives. Let the assistant federal public defender–who withdrew from a death penalty case yesterday because she had been fired under the sequester–eat cake. Some thing are more important than others. Because some things are more important than others, I think we ought to start wearing better looking robes.
I propose a rig like this one:
Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of John Jay,
first Chief Justice of the United
States Supreme Court, 1794.
What do you think?