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VOL. 123 | NO. 110 | Thursday, June 5, 2008

Bar Examines Dress Code Issue

By Bill Dries

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STRIKE A POSE: Circuit Court Judge Rita Stotts, left, and attorney Denise McCrary demonstrate different shoe styles during last week’s dress code hearing. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

For an hour last week, a group of 16 attorneys and judges gathered in the Tennessee Supreme Court chambers in the Shelby County Courthouse to talk about whether a specific dress code is needed in the nine divisions of Circuit Court.

The debate included an impromptu modeling of shoes to determine if either pair represented “cocktail shoes,” and if they did, whether they were inappropriate or disrespectful to the courts. It also included questions about how much arm is too much for a woman to show.

The idea of a more specific dress code is part of a move by Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Janice Holder of Memphis for more uniformity in all of the local rules of the state trial courts. Some of those rules deal with more weighty matters.

The dress code, proposed by leaders of the Memphis Bar Association, the Association for Women Attorneys and the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, has been the talk of the legal community for the last two weeks. Some attorneys and judges reported getting several dozen e-mails on the topic.

Policing what goes too far

Circuit Court Judge Donna Fields, who chaired the May 28 session at the courthouse, began by acknowledging the controversy.

IT’S ELEMENTARY: “I shouldn’t have to tell professionals how to dress,” Circuit Court Judge Donna Fields said while she and a group of attorneys and judges debated the merits of a possible dress code. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

“My position is that perhaps we need to back off the dress code for everybody,” she said. “My leaning at this point is more toward ‘professional attire,’ something in that vein. I feel like we are all professionals. I shouldn’t have to tell professionals how to dress.”

Attorney Earl Buckles said the discussion also is the result of some judges being offended by too-short skirts, too much cleavage or too much arm being shown, and running shoes being worn in the courthouse.

Buckles is a defender of some kind of dress code, although he showed up at the meeting without a coat owing to a recent hospital stay and adjusting to walking with a cane in the first lower 90-degree temperatures of the season.

“Our showing up appropriately attired helps further that respect for the law,” he said. “I am embarrassed today coming like this. But I just got out of the hospital.”

Even opponents of a specific dress code acknowledged some attorneys go too far. But much of the debate was about how specific the code should be in response to that.

“This is way too much ado about something that is very basic,” said attorney Denise McCrary. “There is professional business attire. Why don’t you just simply ask them to come to the bench and pass them a copy of the rule?”

Fields said even the Circuit Court judges have different standards.

This is the proposed wording of a new local rule on what constitutes “appropriate attire for attorneys” in Circuit Court. It is the version recommended by the presidents of the Memphis Bar Association, The Young Lawyers Division of the MBA, the Association for Women Attorneys and the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association.

 “All attorneys should wear appropriate attire. Men shall wear coats, ties, slacks and appropriate footwear, which does not include athletic shoes or shoes without socks. Women shall wear professional and conservative attire, such as dresses with jackets, suits or pantsuits (with appropriate tops), and appropriate footwear, which does not include cocktail shoes or sandals or athletic shoes.”

Judge Kay Robilio, who wasn’t at the meeting, told The Daily News she believes women should be required to wear jackets.

“I definitely believe that women should wear jackets because they establish a certain air of formality,” she said, describing herself as conservative on the issue. “Women want to be able to have the flexibility that they believe is appropriate. … I respect that. I still feel that in the courtroom that it’s appropriate to wear suits and no décolletage. That may not be a popular position.

“It’s not as if sexism is dead. It is not. I think that the strength and power of the legal theory that is proffered is where it’s at. It’s important for a woman’s message to get through intellectually. And it’s important from my perspective that no one’s attention be diverted from the power of representation, which has to have its credence in a well-reasoned argument.”

Judge D’Army Bailey, who was at last week’s meeting, said it amounted to “telling women how to dress.”

“Does Congress have any rules as to how their members are to dress in Congress? I’m not aware of any. Could you imagine having rules for Congress?” he asked at one point.

“I think those folks at the bar associations have got too much spare time on their hands.”

Fashion police

Judge Rita Stotts and McCrary offered their choice of shoes for the day when attorney Michael D. Tauer questioned what a “cocktail shoe” is.

“Is this a major issue? … Obviously something is going on around here that I don’t know anything about. There are a lot of other issues I’d like to see the bar association tackle with this amount of vigor,” Stotts said later.

Tauer tangled with David Cook, an attorney and former Memphis Bar Association president, over the definition of disrespect.

“The determination of what is showing respect or what is showing disrespect is not an objective standard,” Tauer said. “If you’re going to make a rule, it should have an objective standard or you should just recognize that it’s just up to the individual judge’s discretion.”

“But what I’m saying is that if it shows a lack of respect for one’s colleagues or for the court, then it’s inappropriate. That’s how I define appropriate attire,” Cook said.

“I agree with that, but are open-toed shoes showing disrespect to the court?” Tauer asked.

“It would be if I were in court,” Cook said.

The idea of jackets for women drew several questions about how long the sleeves should be.

“Does that mean the whole arm or part of the arm?” one attorney asked.

“There are jackets with short sleeves,” another attorney noted.

Recommendations on all of the rules updates will be open for a 30-day comment period, Fields said.

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