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What to Wear to Court

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

So, you have a court date. Much like the other kind of date, "what should I wear?" is not an altogether silly question. Believe it or not, judges have had to send people home for inappropriate attire, including daisy dukes, flip flops, and do-rags. Whether you are protesting a traffic ticket, your alimony settlement, or are on trial for robbing a bank, considering what to wear to court may help you get the system on your side.

American courts are based on an adversarial process. The founders of our country believed adversaries arguing before an impartial judge or jury was the best way to reach the truth. And if you are up against an adversary, doesn't it make sense to have everything possible working in your favor? If you don't think what you wear can or does make a difference, stop and think about the way that over-dressed anchor woman on TV, or the guy in torn and smelly pants next to you on the bus made you feel. That's right, it makes a difference.

According to the New York Daily News, many courts are setting dress codes. In one court in Bakersfield, Calif., those contesting traffic tickets may not wear flip-flops; the district court in Inkster, Mich. prohibits jeans and Dover, Del. courts don't allow short skirts. In fact, Delaware Superior Court Judge William Witham Jr. told the News Journal, "We're not out to treat people as school kids, but we do expect if you come to court, you need to treat it with the appropriate respect and dignity it should deserve due to the occasion."

Rules aside, consider this. A recent study from researchers at Cornell University found that more attractive defendants were more likely than their less pretty counterparts to get light sentence: the less attractive criminals earned, on average, "22 months longer in prison." One could easily see that a criminal defendant, or anyone involved in a court proceeding, might be considered more attractive to those involved in the process (judge, jury) if what they wear to court shows they have respect for what is going on around them.

However, as is always the case in a court of law, there is the other side to be considered. Some court dress codes may interfere with religious beliefs like burqas for Muslim women, or hats worn indoors for Orthodox Jewish men. And then there is just the plain old First Amendment aspect. The Daily News reports that one defendant, Joseph Kassab, missed his traffic court appearance because he was turned away from court in Inkster, Mich. for wearing black jeans. After learning that this would cost him a fine, Kassab is appealing his case and challenging the court dress code.

In the end, "beware all enterprises that that require new clothes." Don't go out and buy a new wardrobe, and be yourself. What to wear to court? Be neat, clean, conservative, don't show too much skin and for heaven's sake, don't paint cuss words on your fingernails.

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