Justice in Gym Shoes

Justice in Gym ShoesHelp me here.  Does promoting professionalism and respect for our justice system include dictating appropriate attire in the courthouse? Courthouses generally have awe-inspiring architecture, a multitude of whispering visitors and a tradition of respect.

The tradition of respectful attire is clear for some users of the court. It is understood that judges wear traditional robes, and attorneys wear suits.  But what about the jurors? They play a pivotal role as fact-finders and deciders of fate – are they to be exempt from that tradition of respect?

A recent case in Florida has put the spotlight on juror dress code and its role in jury selection. The two lawyers contend that their clients’ Sixth Amendment rights to a jury selected from a fair cross-section of the community were violated when potential jurors were turned away for dress code violations by courthouse security officers during the security screening process. These violations could range from jeans and tennis shoes to “accepted fashion norms of a racial minority.”

A lot of questions arose in my mind while reading up on this issue, but not many answers. What are we trying to achieve with jury selection? If it’s a fair cross section of the community – true peers of the defendant, then why are we holding formalities over the reality of what’s in the closets of everyday people? Isn’t it the job of the courts to serve the people?

Jury System 101

Let’s consider the basic history of the jury system. In America, the right to a trial by jury is guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States, and that jury was traditionally limited to white male property-owners. As society progressed, so did juror rights, but it took until the mid-twentieth century for the right to serve on a jury to be extended to minorities and women. In fact, it wasn’t until 1975 that SCOTUS held, in Taylor v. Louisiana, that a jury selected from a representative cross section of the community was fundamental to the right to jury trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

As we continue to evolve, perhaps the standards for jurors will too, but to what? Shouldn’t respect be garnered not from external formalities, but behavior?

Speaking of formalities, in a somewhat analogous situation, I recall being surprised when my son’s kindergarten teacher asked the children to address her by her first name.  I told her I would prefer to teach my children to use “Miss” or “Ms.” as a matter of respect.  She firmly replied that she commanded the respect of her students without the formality of an archaic designation and multi-syllabic last name.

So back to juror dress codes. Is the goal in setting dress codes respect for the court and the system of justice, or to ensure that litigants can trust that the people deciding their fate are truly their peers? If part of determining “peerhood” is erased by a dress code, perhaps we should ensconce our juries in identical-looking robes like the judges wear. Wouldn’t that be less distracting?

In Illinois, each county has different guidelines for juror dress code. In Cook County, jurors are instructed to dress “properly” for a courthouse, which leaves room for interpretation. Shorts, mini-skirts, tank tops and halters are not permitted, and rather than being dismissed, jurors are asked to return home to change into a more suitable attire. Similar instructions can be found on most Illinois county juror FAQ sites.

Across the country, there is no consistency around juror dress codes other than a requirement of respecting the court. What does it mean to “respect the court?” Can’t sneakers and khakis be respectful? Does clothing really set the scene for respect?

Respecting the courthouse and the legal tradition is very important. However, we don’t live in a society where everyone has a go-to suit. In order to get a proper cross-section of the community, it is inevitable that some jurors will show up to do their civic duty in jeans or  sneakers. Where do we draw the line between respect for our system of justice and that constitutional right to a fair cross section?

Let us know what you think below. Want to say more than yes, no or maybe? Tweet me @2Civility  – I’d love to hear your thoughts. This is an emerging issue in the legal field, and the Commission is interested to hear what lawyers consider respectful dress for jurors.



Shannon Buckley, our intern from The John Marshall Law School, contributed to this post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *