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Why Do Judges Wear Judicial Robes?


Why Do Judges Wear Judicial Robes?

Have you ever wondered why do judges wear judicial robes? Are those judge robes really necessary to preside over a case and to pass judgment? Here in the West, it’s usually expected that a judge would wear one of those voluminous judicial robes. With about 700 years of tradition wearing these imposing robes, it’s no wonder we feel like they should be the standard for judicial attire. Let’s explore why judges wear robes. How did we pave this 700-year road of tradition?

It was during the reign of Edward II, who ruled from 1327 to 1377, when judicial robes became the standard form of dress for judges in England. While they were usually the uniform for academics and scholars, robes were also worn during visits to the royal court. So it made sense to give someone in a high position, such as a judge, a kind of uniform befitting of their status. And so the robes were adopted by judicial officials.

During that time, judge robes came in three standard colors. Violet was worn during the summer, green was for the winter, and scarlet was worn during special occasions. The material for these robes were awarded as a grant from the King, making these robes even more precious. But the guidelines for robes would not stay the same for too long. There were records that, in 1635, new guidelines had arisen, dictating a new style for robes and when to wear them. Judges were to wear black robes with fur trim during the winter. Violet and scarlet robes were to feature pink taffeta, and they were to be worn during the summer. Because of these new guidelines, it’s suspected that black robes began gaining ground during the second half of the 17th century in England.

There isn’t a set-in-stone explanation for what brought about the rise of black robes, though the prevailing theory has to do with the ties between black and the period of mourning that comes after the death of a monarch ruler. One theory is that black robes became the popular choice after the death of Charles II in 1685 or the death of Queen Mary in 1694. It may very well have affected all attire, and not just judge robes.

It wasn’t until the 18the century that further guidelines were established, telling judges that they needed to wear black robes. By this point, English judges were wearing scarlet robes with black scarves. They would also sport a scarlet hood if they were presiding over a criminal case. But when it came to civil cases, judges had often chosen to wear black silk robes.

Moving across the Atlantic to the American colonies, judges continued the English tradition of wearing robes. But it wasn’t until after Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had a prolonged debate about whether they should adopt English ways at all. Thomas Jefferson wanted judges to only wear suits, detaching themselves from English tradition entirely. John Adams was a lawyer and fancied the use of robes and wigs, just like the English judges. In the end, the two historical figures came to an agreement: The judges would wear robes. But the wigs were not to be adopted.

Today, judges continue the tradition of wearing robes. But there isn’t actually a rule that requires them to do so. It’s not the time of the American colonies, and rules regarding robes have since relaxed to the point that they’re not even enforced. So why do judges wear robes?

Some judges say it’s because of tradition. Robes have been a part of the judiciary wardrobe for so long, why stop? Maybe it’s because of how it helps distinguish the judge from the rest of the courtroom. An authority figure ought to stand out in some way, and in the courtroom, no one has more authority than the judge. One judicial figure, Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor, believes that wearing judicial robes may just be out of tradition, but she also appreciates the symbolism that comes with the judge robes: that they represent the judge’s commitment to upholding the Constitution and preserving the rule of law. But that hasn’t stopped all of them. Some judges have been noted to skip the robe in favor for a suit. Other instances involve a judge sprucing up their robe with scarves or jewelry.


7 comments


  • R. G. Newbury

    Judicial robes, as such, arose much earlier than Edward II, but in the reign of Henry II, whose argument with Thomas a Becket, was about the line between temporal and ecclesiastical powers (“Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”). But by the end of his reign, 1189, Henry had made sure that the common law (that is, the law common to all) was administered throughout his realm by itinerant, professional justices, almost all of whom were educated by the Church and who wrote in latin. (Remember that there was no ‘educated middle class’ and that the barons, etc. would not deign to act as judges (or lawyers!) except in their own local courts.) Thus, habeus corpus, certiorari, subpoena, and mandamus. Mandamus is latin for ‘we command’ and was the verb in those documents.
    The ecclesiastical courts were presided over by robed priests, abbots and bishops. That style of dress was adopted by the temporal judges appointed by the King. It was, as noted, much later, that robes were always black, with sashes, etc. When lawyers (barristers) also took to wearing judicial style robes as a sign of their position, is not known, but it is also very old. Besides denoting their status, by tradition, robing is also thought to be intended to level the field, between the parties. That is, neither side can ‘dress for success’. (It is also worth noting that the Royal Courts were not heated, so that warm robes were something to be wished for in the winter.)
    That US practice has devolved to judges wearing little more than a black surplice with a zip up the front is disappointing in its lack of distinction. It is not even as distinguished as a barristers’ vest and gown, or a university professors formal event gown.


  • Kevin

    We would all be better off if instead of following tradition, judges acted fairly, reasonably, and honestly by just doing their job of applying the law to the facts! It is not rocket-science!


  • Kevin

    We would all be better off if instead of following tradition, judges acted fairly, reasonably, and honestly by just doing their job of applying the law to the facts! It is not rocket-science!


  • Elizabeth

    Thanks for the interesting article!


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