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VOL. 123 | NO. 130 | Thursday, July 03, 2008

Court Dress Code Awaits Judicial Approval

By Rebekah Hearn

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DRESS CODE COMING: Judges will allow the public 30 days to comment on the official dress code rules for Shelby County Circuit Court once the rules have been published. -- PHOTO BY REBEKAH HEARN 

A meeting of the Shelby County Circuit Court judges last week dealt, at least in part, with the attorney dress code issue that has drawn attention from the public and even the international press in recent weeks.

The dress code is part of a rules package originally raised by Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Janice Holder of Memphis in an attempt to achieve more consistency in all of the local rules for the state trial courts.

Leaders of the Memphis Bar Association, the Association for Women Attorneys and the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association originally proposed the dress code that has caused much discussion in recent weeks.

A final draft of the dress code that sparked the debate first must be typed and circulated among all nine Circuit Court judges for their approval. The judges must ensure the copy reflects what they agreed to in the meeting and check for typographical errors.

“We don’t have any final (dress code) rules yet, so I’m not at liberty to speak about them,” said Circuit Court Judge Donna Fields, who chairs the rules committee for the Circuit Court.

Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey couldn’t give specifics either, but said that in general, the new dress code rules will be similar to the original rules.

“It’s not exactly the same language, but it will be basically the same; it says we expect (attorneys) to dress in a professional manner,” Bailey said. “Of course, I think that goes without saying, but at least those who want it said can say that.

“I don’t have the exact language, but I think it boiled down to we expect lawyers to show respect and dress in a professional manner, but we didn’t get into trying to define what that means, and I don’t personally think that we should have.”

Hot topic

The Daily News’ original story on the dress code was published June 5 and picked up by the New York law blog, nylawblog.typepad.com, and written about by blogger Nicole Black.

Black commented on the dress code rules that were proposed by members of the MBA.

“I think my favorite part of the rule is that the attire for women is specifically described as ‘conservative,’" she wrote. “For some reason, men need not dress ‘conservatively.’ Presumably, 1970s-style leisure suits would be perfectly appropriate for men to wear in court.”

In addition, Canada’s National Post published a news brief by Mitch Kowalski, who began the short piece with a bit of sarcasm: “The Memphis Daily News reports on a serious issue confronting all of us as summer arrives: toe cleavage.”

When asked why she thought the dress code debate among Memphis lawyers and judges received so much media attention, Fields laughed.

“It was a slow news day?” she suggested.

Bailey had a bit more to say about that particular topic.

“I think that it enters into an area that I don’t think the judiciary ought to be involved in. Each judge has the authority over court to police who walks into their doors, and we have bailiffs for that purpose,” he said. “I can understand why the world would be concerned with it. With all the other issues that we’ve got here in Memphis … we’re sitting around here talking about whether (a woman’s) toes are out.”

Several other news outlets lately have discussed the question of what constitutes proper office attire. The Wall Street Journal’s article, “Bare-Legged Ladies: Hosiery Reveals Office Divide” (June 5), is just one example, as is the American Bar Association’s “The Dress Code Debate: Pantyhose and Flip-Flops” (June 5).

“The New York Times ran an article recently about what’s appropriate in the workplace,” Fields said. “Someone sent that to me. I have been receiving lots more information than I ever cared to receive.

“Somehow I got in the middle of this firestorm, and all I wanted was to give the Bar Association women a chance to be heard.”

Next steps

When the draft that currently is being circulated among the Circuit Court judges is given the go-ahead and the dress code rules are published for comment in The Daily News, the public will have 30 days from the first date of publication to send comments about the dress code policy.

That the rules seem to have changed very little may suffice to appease those who were against the implementation of a court-wide rule on dress.

Bailey said that while coming into court appropriately attired is important, “that’s just a matter of common sense from one person to another.”

“People dress in lots of different ways, and who am I to try to set a standard because I’ve got the authority of a role?” Bailey asked. “If I think it’s insulting or offensive, I think I should be man or woman enough to respond to it, and hopefully with some sensitivity.”

Fields said she hopes for reconciliation on the issue soon.

“The judges did consider all the comments that came in from the members of the bar, and I think what we have is a final draft,” she said. “But it’s being corrected and approved and it will go out for public comment very soon, I hope.”

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