Florida

Florida chief justice lays down the law: Black robes only in court

Florida’s leading jurist, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga of the state Supreme Court, has laid down the law: Every judge must wear a solid black robe in court at all times, and with no “embellishment.”
Florida’s leading jurist, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga of the state Supreme Court, has laid down the law: Every judge must wear a solid black robe in court at all times, and with no “embellishment.” AP

Justice isn’t blind after all.

It’s black.

Florida’s highest-ranking jurist, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga of the state Supreme Court, has laid down the law: Every judge must wear a solid black robe in court at all times, and with no “embellishment.”

From now on, colored robes are banned in courtrooms, and no embellishment means nothing else — not even a cross or tiny American flag.

“I think people expect someone up there to be wearing a black robe, and when you see something different, it lessens the seriousness of the proceedings,” Labarga said. “The courtroom is a serious place.”

Labarga said he acted after hearing colorful stories about casual judicial wear, including the one about the judge in rural Union County near Gainesville who wore camo on the bench.

The unadorned, one-sentence rule, patterned after a state law in California, states: “During any judicial proceeding, robes worn by a judge must be solid black with no embellishment.”

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mindy Glazer wore black for 14 years, but said she switched to blue when she moved to the criminal bench, which can be an emotionally trying place of endless bond hearings.

“The color changes the mood in the courtroom,” Glazer said, “and people seem to be a lot cheerier.”

But she’ll follow the rules. Glazer is back to black.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan said she knows to avoid making political statements that can raise questions about impartiality, such as wearing an anti-domestic violence pin in a domestic violence case. But she doesn’t understand why she can’t wear a small pin bearing the face of her beloved black Labrador retriever, Molly.

“I appreciate anything that can be divisive, but I don’t think my picture of Molly is divisive,” she said. “Do we have no room for a little individuality, a little personal touch here and there?

“I wear a cross. I’m a Christian. And I hope that would not offend anybody of another faith that’s in front of me,” she said. “Are we next going to say, ‘Okay, you can’t wear any jewelry that might be an embellishment?’”

Broward County Circuit Judge Merrilee Ehrlich also took issue with Labarga’s basic black decree.

“The issue of judicial robes,” she wrote in public comments to the court, “should be considered on a case-by-case basis, not with an overly broad paint stroke… There is no ‘one size fits all’ on the bench, inside or out, any longer.”

Basic black, she said, is a throwback to earlier times when courts were comprised entirely of “older, somber appearing men.”

The late William Rehnquist, a former chief justice of the United States, embellished his black robe with four gold stripes on his sleeves, a style patterned after a favorite character in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

Justices of the Florida Supreme Court did not wear black robes until 1949, when they moved to a brand new courthouse in Tallahassee. Even then, Justice Rivers Henderson Buford considered the courtroom attire too stuffy and formal and vowed never to wear “one of those damnable black robes.” When wearing black became mandatory, Buford borrowed a colleague’s, as authors Walter W. Manley II and Canter Brown Jr. write in The Supreme Court of Florida, 1917-1972.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch gave his colleagues a little history on the origins of black robes.

“Prior to the death of Queen Anne, English judges wore red and other colored robes,” Hirsch wrote. “When the queen died, English judges put on black in mourning, and we colonists did likewise. No one told us when the period of mourning had passed, so even after the English judges went back to their coats of many colors, here in the colonies we continued to wear all black.”

Attorney James McAfee, a member of the Florida Bar who lives in Virginia, lectured Labarga: “I am sorry you want to treat judges like delinquent school children, but apparently you don’t trust judges to exercise good judgment. Weird.”

Circuit Judge Robert Belanger in Fort Pierce also found Labarga’s rule to be unnecessary.

Commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marines 30 years ago, he said: “Now, at the age of 57, I am not trusted to dress appropriately. The modern regulatory state favors rules and regulations governing the minutiae of individual behavior.”

“I always wear my robe,” he said.

The judge said to have a fondness for camo colors in court is Robert “Bo” Bayer, a county judge in Union County, north of Gainesville.

His biography says he was born in Japan, raised in an Air Force family and coached and taught high school in St. Petersburg before he became a lawyer. While going to law school at the University of Florida, he helped Coach Steve Spurrier recruit football players.

Bayer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

When Bayer was sworn in two years ago, the local paper, the Union County Times, ran a photo of him dressed in his black robe and the straw hat he wore on the campaign trail. A friend, Alachua County Judge David Krieder, said of Bayer: “He is genuine. He is a character.”

The dress code is now the law of the land, but Labarga said he doesn’t know what he will do if a renegade judge refuses to wear black.

“That’s a bridge we’ll have to cross when we get there,” he said. “I’m hoping all judges will comply.”

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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