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VOL. 123 | NO. 198 | Thursday, October 09, 2008

Dress Code Makes Rounds Among Attorneys

By Bill Dries

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There won’t be any specific fashion dos or don’ts for Shelby County Circuit Court in a new set of local rules attorneys are reviewing.

The revised “local rules” draft began circulating for comment this week.

Circuit Court Judge Donna Fields drafted it in response to a request from the Tennessee Supreme Court for more uniform guidelines that eliminate unnecessary expense and delay across courts. The update was a priority of Chief Justice Janice Holder of Memphis, who is a former Circuit Court judge.

The draft has been approved by the other eight Circuit Court judges. It will take effect next month after a public comment period by the Administrative Office of Courts.

“The purpose of the reforming all across the state … was so that any attorney who practices anywhere across the state will be able to know what the local rules are before they get here or before we get to East Tennessee,” Fields told The Daily News. “I can tell you that no one was happier than I was when we finally got a consensus on this.”

Local rules are usually posted on even the most rudimentary court Web site.

All of the rules have to comply with statutory law and rules of civil procedure. Fields said most of the changes involved removing outdated provisions including one that banned chewing tobacco in court.

“We haven’t really had a problem with that for a number of years, actually,” she said.

A popular rule among attorneys that limited interrogatories to 30 questions including subparts also was eliminated.

“That was contrary to the rules of civil procedure,” Fields said. “So that was taken out.”

Professional question

Some judges and attorneys pushed for rules revisions that would set strict standards for what is and isn’t appropriate attire for attorneys in the courtroom. Those standards would have included no open-toed shoes or cleavage showing for women and ties for men. Both genders would have been required to wear suit coats as well.

Other attorneys argued that a more specific standard for appropriate courtroom style perhaps said more about those imposing the standards than about whether the proper respect was being shown.

Two of the judges, D’Army Bailey and Rita Stotts, questioned whether those seeking the more specific standards had too much free time.

The debate drew national and inter­national attention. It also prompted a large e-mail response among local attorneys.

At the second of two public hearings in June at the Shelby County courthouse, Fields indicated she would probably stick with a more general standard.

“The personal appearance and conduct of attorneys in the courtroom is visible evidence of their respect for the rule of law and the administration of justice,” the draft version reads. “All attorneys shall wear professional attire.”

The standard leaves what is and isn’t professional attire up to the judge in each of the nine divisions of Circuit Court.

“We did not want to be placed in the position of having to correct or point out unprofessional attire,” Fields said. “But there’s really no other way to handle it.”

The draft of the new local rules for Shelby County Circuit Court is also posted at www.memphisbar.org.

The Memphis Bar Association is taking comments on the new rules through Oct. 24 via the Web site.

“Our board will review all that and decide what we would recommend to the judges,” said Anne Fritz, MBA executive director. “It’s totally up to the judges to decide whether to accept our comments or not.”

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