Best Friend's Wedding: Washington County, MN
SAULT STE. MARIE, MI – 7/4/18
On a bulletin board outside a courtroom in Hillsboro, Oregon, there hung a sign stating something to the effect of, “If you are not dressed properly for court, please inform the clerk and your appearance will be reset.” (The exact verbiage of the first clause may differ slightly, as I did not record it verbatim.) At first, I misread this sign – I thought it was a veiled threat that the clerk would forcibly change the defendant’s clothing to make it conform with the court’s dress code. I only later realized the sign meant that “appearance” was referring to the court appearance – if a defendant was not suitably clothed, they’d be given a new court date.
In every court I’ve visited, there has been some sort of statement, verbal or written, about proper court attire, decorum, and behavior. In Washington County, Minnesota, my most recent stop, one sheriff’s deputy rather pithily admonished all those present, “Act like you’re at your best friend’s wedding who you didn’t plan on embarrassing.” There’s a deeper truth to that statement; indeed, attending court (in terms of the expected behavior) seems a lot like attending a religious service.
First, there’s an expectation of formal dress. In most courts I’ve been to, this has taken the form of a prohibition on shorts and tank tops, as well as a general prohibition on “inappropriate” attire. (Notably, though, Minnesota did not appear to have such a prohibition; I saw defendants appear in both shorts and tank tops.) There’s also required behavior for spectators; in Utah, for example, I saw a woman with a young child asked to leave when the child cried – just as the parent might be receive glares for their child shrieking during a religious service. Finally, there are prescribed rituals for participants: rising when the judge takes the bench, for example, and appending “your honor” to every response to the judge, amongst others.
These codes of behavior seem to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they do promote an idea of the justice system as something extraordinary, in the literal sense of the word. The requirements of more formal and respectful behavior signals that we view our justice system as deserving more attention than our everyday goings-about. It signals perhaps, some religious-esque notions of fairness, justice, mercy, and righteousness.
At least in the religious parallel, though, there’s a common rejoinder to this argument. If you see someone dressed inappropriately for church, or with a crying baby, are you not at least happy they are in church in the first place? Shouldn’t access be prioritized over conduct, especially when someone might not be able to help it? Similarly, if a mother is expelled from a court room with a crying baby, does it not infringe upon her right to view a public court proceeding? Does forcing someone to perhaps miss another day of work for a court appearance that was rescheduled because of their clothing really advance the interests of justice? (For an excellent analysis of how courtroom dress codes, and their enforcement by court security, are legally problematic, see here.)
There are some standards of dress and behavior for the courtroom necessary for the administration of justice, of course. An adult who ought to know better yelling and disrupting court may have to be removed; someone who shows up wearing clothing with obscene and offensive messages written on it probably should change before appearing in court. But courtroom standards do deserve a closer look to make sure they are really necessary – how much does a prohibition on shorts make the law better enforced? Does making someone put on jeans really help anyone? Or does it just serve to make courts, the law, and justice itself more inaccessible?