Male Judge Helpfully Instructs Women Lawyers On How To Dress Less Slutty In The Courtroom

A judge who thinks this way is not someone I would want presiding over any case involving sexism, violence against women, or rape.
Publish date:
March 28, 2014
sexism, seriously just stop talking now, lawyers, judges

There's been quite a kerfuffle swirling around appropriate courtroom attire for women lawyers this week, starting with Amanda Hess at Slate, who discussed the history of courtroom attire for women. Nothing in Hess' post was new to women in the profession, who are used to being told that they need to dress extremely conservatively to be respected -- but also that they need to constantly adjust their style to meet the tastes of specific judges. Some never want to see pants, for example, while others abhor specific hemlines or colors.

While women in the law are subjected to a truly boggling set of appearance standards, men are pretty much safe with suits; and unlike women, they can appear in court looking unkempt and wrinkled without attracting negative attention. Woe betide the female lawyer who shows up in court without makeup or with hair not styled to perfection, but the counselor on the other side of the room is free to wear a rumpled suit and messy hair, so long as he's a man.

Hess' piece gets deep into the ridiculousness of the appearance standards for female attorneys, but then US District Court Judge Richard Kopf had to get into the discussion on his blog, "Hercules and the umpire."

Kopf apparently saw no problem with openly admitting that he objectifies women appearing in his courtroom from the bench: "[a female lawyer] wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest. I especially appreciate the last two attributes."

Uhm, gross? It certainly wouldn't make me want to appear in his courtroom, even wearing what he seems to deem acceptably conservative dress. The thought that the judge would be paying more attention to my breasts and legs than what's coming out of my mouth is super upsetting, especially when he pairs his comment with a note that the "female law clerks" trash-talk said attorney (whom, he said in a later post, was an amalgamation of several women). Thus, he pulled out an old and catty argument, that women are quick to tear each other down rather than support each other, suggesting that female attorneys who don't meet his appearance standard will not just be objectified, but also hated by other women.

He provided three rules for women in law:

1. You can’t win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it.

2. It is not about you. That goes double when you are appearing in front of a jury.

3. Think about the female law clerks. If they are likely to label you, like Jane Curtin, an ignorant slut behind your back, tone it down.

Well, Judge Kopf, I have a few words for you.

1. This is a bullshit argument. Seriously? I hate it when people talk about men like this, as though it's pointless to even try to battle sexism and rape culture and the horrible things men do to women because it's "just how men are." No. It's how men are socialized to be. Men can be both pigs and prudes because they're taught, from a very early age, about the virgin/whore dichotomy, and it is BULLSHIT. Women have a right to be respected and treated as human beings no matter what they are wearing, including in a courtroom.

A judge who thinks this way is not someone I would want presiding over any case involving sexism, violence against women, or rape. Do you think, Judge Kopf, that women who wear short skirts or high heels are "asking for it"? Do you think we shouldn't try to raise better men and boys? Do you think we should just give up?

2. Actually, I agree with you on this point. When you're representing a case in front of a courtroom, it absolutely makes sense to dress reasonably conservatively and direct the focus of the case onto the evidence and your arguments, not what you are and aren't wearing. But this is an incredibly sexist way to express this.

There are lots of reasons, including compelling studies, to support wearing conservative dress in court -- by which I mean no loud colors, for example, or large and distracting tattoos (and I say this as a tattooed person). As social norms shift, though, so are the norms of what "conservative" means, and eventually the bench won't be dominated by old white men, which means that attorneys will have more flexibility in what they wear.

It's also really disingenuous to talk about courtroom attire without addressing the huge double standard that looms between men and women. For women, dressing appropriately for court requires maintaining a large and expensive wardrobe, as well as being on top of hair, makeup, skin, and nails. Men don't shoulder these expenses -- and let's talk about who's making partner at major firms, who's being nominated to the bench, and who's garnering all the legal awards, shall we? Sexism is alive and well when it comes to talking about what dressing "conservatively" means.

3. What. Even. With. This. I get that this is a reference to a "Saturday Night Live" skit (the YouTube link was a hint) but seriously? You're going to fall back on the old "other girls will think you're a slut" argument to convince women attorneys to dress in a way that meets your own staid preferences? (P.S. Nice try with the appeal to women with your comments in the followup post on how you wrote opinions against so-called "partial birth" abortion bans, dude.)

Predictably, the comments on his post exploded. Women tired of being objectified while trying to practice law were furious, male lawyers and law students chimed in to defend Judge Kopf, and everyone had a grand old time arguing in circles.

The post and subsequent discussion really highlight the ongoing debate over "professional dress" in law, and other trades as well. The fact of the matter is that we are living in a changing society, and this is a society where standards for formal dress are being relaxed, especially (and, I would argue, FINALLY), for women. I can't help but see the steady shift in formal dress as anything but a good thing; I don't think attorneys of any gender should be showing up at court in beachwear, but I also don't think women should be required to mummify themselves in ankle-length skirts and oppressively hot wool jackets, either.

There's a new generation of attorneys emerging, and they're going to be setting the standards and making the decisions. Young women in law today have more of a chance than ever before to become partners, to take seats on the Federal bench (and in the Supreme Court) and to play a highly active and visible role in the legal community. It's commentary like this that reminds young attorneys that their bodies are considered public property, objects for discussion and ogling; here we have a Federal Judge calmly and happily admitting to the fact that he likes to goggle at attorneys who are trying to present cases.

He may think that not adhering to a given dress standard is disrespectful to the courtroom, but I'd argue that his comments shame the judiciary, and the legal profession as a whole. Because his argument wasn't about focusing on legal matters and presenting cases neutrally, but rather about how women who wear short skirts or plunging shirts are fair game for objectification. I'm deeply concerned that Federal judges are apparently unable to get their minds out of the gutter long enough to pay attention to the cases before them -- what does this mean for American jurisprudence?