Supreme Tradition: The story of justices’ black robes


The U.S. Supreme Court is steeped in tradition. One is clear and out front for all to see: The black robes.

Justices robes are more or less the same no matter what courtroom you are in. It’s a tradition carried over from the British courts from centuries ago.

Their message of simplicity holds true even today.

Among the many topics senators asked Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett about during hearings earlier this month was the history of the justices’ black robes.

 “In the beginning, justices used to wear colorful robes that identified them from the schools they graduated from,” she said.

She went on to say Chief Justice John Marshall, in 1801, changed all that when he decided all justices should simply wear black.

To her, today, she said, “the black robe shows justice is blind.”

Most, if not all justices, would agree.

Chris Schmidt has made a career at Kent College of Law studying the U.S. Supreme Court.

 “One thing about the court is that it is very proud of its traditions,” he said.

Marshall set the tone with the black colorless robe still relevant today.

 “He thought the court would be more powerful if it spoke in a single voice,” Schmidt said. “He was one who really pressured the justices to issue when possible a single unanimous decision. And on most of the big cases he would do it himself.”

Rebecca Pallmeyer is the Chicago federal courts first female chief judge. She remembers slipping on her black robe for the very first time.

 “It is such a rush. It’s sobering,” she said. “You put on the face of what you hope will be decency, dignity, and justice.”

And then there are those judges who coupled dignity and justice with some flair.

In the mid ‘90s, Chief Justice William Rehnquist added some gold stripes to his sleeves modeled after a character in a Gilbert and Sullivan production, at least that is how the story goes. They were on display during the Clinton impeachment hearings.

When women were finally welcomed to the high court, Sandra Day O’Connor gave hers a feminine touch. She added a lace jabot. The year was 1981. 12 years later she encouraged Ruth Bader Ginsburg to do the same.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum has a custom made for Ginsburg on display in its collection.

The museum’s Arielle Weininger said the robe show’s Ginsburg “was petite but mighty.”

And her collars had meaning.

Weininger said a sparkly one spoke volumes.

 “(Ginsburg) thought the black color and shininess, and almost spikiness of it, was appropriate for a dissent,” she said.

It came from the  store Banana Republic.

Still, a woman of purpose, Ginsburg was going to make even her robe and its accessories count a send a mesage each time she wore them.

 “’I am still a woman and you are going to respect me in the role,’” Weininger said. “And in the same way as those males who were the only ones on the court until 1981.”

For men and women alike, a uniform representing neutrality, humility and unity

The justices black robes are tradition only and not required attire.

Other traditions for the justices include where they sit on the bench, who is assigned the opinion and shaking hands inside the robing room before they go out to hear each new case.

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