Why Do Judges Wear Black Robes?

December 10, 2022

Judge wearing a black robe

A black robe is often associated with a judge in a court, but why do judges wear black robes and not some other color or garment?

Wearing a robe has a long history in academics, and wearing robes by judges can be traced back to the 15th century in England. Judges wore various colors, depending on the style at the time. Rules established in 1635 said judges should wear black in the winter and violet in the summer, and scarlet robes should be worn for criminal court or ceremonies. Wearing black robes has also been traced to the years of mourning upon the death of Queen Mary II in 1694. 

Judges in Colonial England also wore robes of various colors, and they also wore wigs. Supreme Court Justices in the early years of the United States followed the English tradition and wore a scarlet rob or one made of fur though they dropped wearing wigs. 

It’s widely believed that when John Marshall became chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1801, he chose a simple black robe, and the justices since that time have stuck to that tradition. There is no rule in place what justices or judges must wear while presiding over a court, either in color, the type of robe, or if they even need to be wearing a robe. 

Some state judges didn’t wear a black robe until much later. One example is Rhode Island, where robes weren’t adopted to be worn by the state’s Supreme Court until 1900. The Superior Court in Rhode Island didn’t wear black robes until years after that time, and the last district court in the state didn’t finally adopt black robes as the standard until 1960.

Another state example was Florida, where members of the Florida Supreme Court didn’t start to wear robes until they moved into a new air-conditioning building in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1949. Before that, judges wore only a business suit. It wasn’t until 2015 that it was mandated that judges in Florida could only wear black robes in court. 

Supreme Court justices also didn’t have to have a particular make or type of robe, though it has been reported that in the 19th century, the robes for the justices all came from one specific tailor. Justices today can wear any robe style they like. It has also been reported that many justices get their robes from a company in Virginia called Bentley and Simon.

There have been a couple of times justices have deviated from the simple black robe. In 1969, Justice Hugo Black sat without his robe for the remainder of a court session, and there was no indication that he just forgot to put it on or something was wrong with it. Another instance was when Chief Justice William Rehnquist added gold stripes to one arm of his rope. According to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, he said he got the idea after attending a Gilbert and Sullivan opera where a character that was the lord chief justice wore a robe with gold stripes.

There is a procedure for donning the robe at the Supreme Court. After the justices are alerted by a buzzer five minutes before oral arguments begin, they go to a designated robing room. They are helped by an assistant in the room to fasten the robe, and before proceeding into the courtroom, each justice shakes the hand of every other justice.

Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, Roger Williams University School of Law, Florida Supreme Court, Juris Magazine, Politico

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