Dress Codes banner image

Revisiting dress code policies for court users

June 1, 2022

By Dimarie Alicea-Lozada

In 1991, Catherine Thérèse Clarke of Loyola University School of Law noted that a survey of Maryland judges at the time found “Clothing that distracts or offends is, to some judges, a breach of etiquette because it undermines the serious, professional atmosphere of the proceedings.” Most state courts have rules in place to enforce the way people enter their courtrooms in terms of inappropriate or proper attire. Enforcement and implementation of these rules are often the responsibility of a security officer at the courtroom entrance. Over three decades later, questions and challenges have been raised about several of these policies.

A 2018 Harvard Law Review article addressed the dress code issue as a function of the right to a public trial conferred by the Sixth Amendment and ramifications under the First Amendment as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and the Privileges and Immunities Clauses. The author asserts that enforcement of dress codes in courtrooms should be in the hands of judges, while it seems to be desirable to defer it to law enforcement and security personnel.

Moreover, dress codes have been raised as an access to justice issue for impoverished court users. Dress codes could hinder many people who need to go to court but cannot afford suitable clothes. To counter this in 2021, the Public Defender’s office and the District Attorney’s office of Durham County, North Carolina, created lending closets for victims, and witnesses. People could borrow mostly donated clothes. The closet is in the guest room of the Durham County Courthouse with sizes for almost everyone.

In addition to focusing on what parties should wear to court, several such dress codes focus on what should not be worn. An examination of dress code policies in several Virginia counties (Chesterfield, Yorktown, Henrico) finds that they require “proper attire and behavior” along with a list of the types of clothing and shoes that are not allowed. Liberty, Georgia, has the same general rule and pattern as does San Juan County, Washington.

That said, the pandemic changed and altered the context of dress codes as well. One Florida judge noted that attorneys appearing via Zoom were in pajamas or other clothing that would be unacceptable in person (and holding that they were equally unacceptable for virtual hearings as well). However, some courts have opted for a more relaxed policy. Los Angeles Superior Court recently announced that they are extending the court’s relaxed dress code policy.

Has your court revised its dress code to ensure it is not creating a hardship for court users? Let us know and share with us at Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164. Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Vimeo.