Legally Speaking: You're Not Going to Wear That in Court, Are You?

By John G. Browning | Jul 9, 2009

Legally Speaking

Legally Speaking

The old saying "Clothes make the man" (or woman) certainly holds true in the courtroom.

How witnesses and parties present themselves can speak volumes to a judge and jury, whether intended or not.

Famed trial lawyer Gerry Spence once told me how he felt when, during a lawsuit in which he represented a beauty queen who was suing Penthouse magazine for defamation, publisher Bob Guccione showed up for trial in a Wyoming state courtroom.

As soon as the small-town jurors gawked at the flamboyant Guccione wearing a colorful velour suit with shirt unbuttoned to show off his various gold chains, Spence knew he had the upper hand.

Part of the consideration behind choices in courtroom attire involves showing respect for the judge, jury, and the justice system itself.

Dressing appropriately is part of observing the proper decorum; for example, one usually doesn't wear to church what one would wear to a backyard barbecue.

There are good reasons for paying attention to a judge's admonishments about the court's dress code � just ask Kirstie Arnold. The 28year-old Lancaster, Ky., woman had been warned about her clothing during twp previous court appearances, and had even been fined $50.

At a third court appearance in which she wore short shorts, Ms. Arnold was found in contempt of court and ordered to serve three days in jail by Judge Janet Booth.

In the course of my years of trying cases, I've run into some questionable fashion choices by witnesses. I've had to persuade young men that their clubwear and facial piercings might not play as well in rural east Texas (where our jury foreman wore bib overalls each day to court) as in urban Dallas.

I've reminded a beleaguered business owner before a court-ordered mediation with his company's creditors that this was not a good day to wear his Armani suit, Rolex watch and diamond rings.

And when people ask me why I always keep a spare dress shirt at the office, I tell them about the time I defended a construction company whose employee had dumped a load of bricks from several stories up onto an unsuspecting worker down below, leaving the young man paralyzed.

One of the disputed issues in the case was whether or not the operator of the pallet jack was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Despite being forewarned to dress appropriately, the construction company employee showed up for his videotaped deposition in a sleeveless muscle shirt, which proudly showcased his marijuana leaf tattoo. By the time the cameras rolled, he was wearing a long-sleeved button-down dress shirt.

Witness attire horror stories are such an ongoing topic of discussion for lawyers that ABA Journal recently encouraged attorneys to share some of their favorite experiences.

After reading them, I've come up with my own set of guidelines for witnesses to keep in mind as they rummage through their closets for something to wear to court.

Rule No. 1 � Remember Why You're Going to Court

Take a moment and reflect on what brings you before a court in the first place. If you're a defendant up on domestic violence charges, it's probably not a good idea to show up wearing the sleeveless undershirt commonly known as a "wife beater."

If you're facing DWI counts, perhaps you should re-think the Jack Daniels T-shirt, "Coors Racing Team" shirt, or other alcohol-related attire.

If you're contesting a prostitution arrest, you may fare better if you don't wear that "Born for Porn" T-shirt.

Similarly, defendants accused of weapons violations should avoid shirts with pictures of guns, or gangsta rap shirts with illustrations of police in the crosshairs of a gun sight.

And you will probably come across as more credible on your drug-related charges if you don't wear a shirt festooned with the word "Cocaine" in a red and white cursive parody of the Coca-Cola logo, or a T-shirt that reads "Reefer Madness" along with a ballcap that says "Blunt."

It's also important to remember what your clothes do or don't cover up. That's a lesson learned the hard way by a young man facing drug and assault charges who stood to receive probation conditioned upon no gang contact � that is, if he had remembered to wear something that didn't prominently display the brand new forearm tattoos spelling out the name of his gang and "4 Life."

Another defendant charged with stabbing a man to death had to be convinced by his lawyer to wear something that would cover his tattoo. Apparently, displaying the image of a human skull with a knife stuck through the eye socket and coming out the mouth might have made his claim of self defense somewhat less credible.

And yes, if you're wondering, all of these examples were drawn from real life cases. For more examples of criminal defendants with unfortunate tastes in fashion, feel free to check out the "Smoking Gun" Web site.

Rule No. 2: Remember that Your Idea of Appropriate May Not Be The Same As Everyone Else's

I usually tell clients to wear to court what they would wear to church. When I saw one young woman in a motor vehicle accident show up in a tank top, shorts and flip-flops, I realized that we must go to very different churches.

One lawyer, who had only seen his client in jeans, urged her to wear a dress to court. It was a piece of advice he regretted when she appeared wearing the only dress she owned an '80s-vintage prom dress.

Another lawyer recounts the tale of how he instructed his client to wear a suit to court. The man showed up in a tuxedo, which made the judge think he was mocking the proceedings, and threatened contempt charges.

At that point, the witness explained that he didn't own a suit, and tried to rent one at the last minute, only to find that tuxedos were all that was available.

Yet another attorney recalls telling his client to wear a suit, only to see the defendant walk into the courtroom wearing the only suit he owned � a disco-era number described as "Travolta-esque," complete with alligator shoes and a full length beaver fur coat.

According to the stunned lawyer, as the client "pimped his way down the aisle to the witness box, I swear I heard the theme from 'Shaft' in the background."

Rule No. 3: It Helps If the Clothing Actually Covers You

Showing too much skin is generally a bad idea. Countless lawyers have had to remind female clients to avoid skirts that are too short, or tops that display too much cleavage.

Remember, if the attorney advises you to dress as you would for a job interview, he doesn't mean a job at a strip club.

And men have to be reminded of this as well, such as the young man who wore loose jeans that sagged so low that he was inadvertently mooning the jury members whenever he faced away from them.
When it comes to what to wear in court, it's always good to keep in mind that priceless gem of motherly advice � "you never get a second chance to make a first impression".

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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