Judge: Don't be too sexy for this court

  • 27 March 2014
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Inappropriate courtroom footwear?

US District Court Judge Richard Kopf has some wardrobe advice for young women lawyers: If female law clerks label you "an ignorant slut" behind your back, you should "tone it down".

Here's the full passage, which the federal judge posted Tuesday on his personal blog :

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.

OK, in his defence, he was referring to a 35-year-old Saturday Night Live skit involving Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain. That makes it less ridiculously inappropriate, maybe?

The Nebraska jurist's post was prompted by an Amanda Hess Slate article that traced the history of acceptable female dress in the courtroom. She quotes an Illinois bankruptcy judge as saying scantily clad women had become a "huge problem".

She notes that Loyola Law School in Los Angeles recently sent out a memo informing its students that "stiletto heels are not appropriate office wear (outside of ridiculous lawyer TV shows)".

She adds: "Judges who school female attorneys on how to dress are annoying, and the limitless choices of the female wardrobe are confusing."

Yes, about those judges. Here's an anecdote Mr Kopf offers on his blog:

True story. Around these parts there is a wonderfully talented and very pretty female lawyer who is in her late twenties. She is brilliant, she writes well, she speaks eloquently, she is zealous but not overly so, she is always prepared, she treats others, including her opponents, with civility and respect, she wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest. I especially appreciate the last two attributes.

In a recent case involving this fine young lawyer every female law clerk in the building slipped in and out of the courtroom to observe her. I am not exaggerating. I later learned that word had gotten around about this lawyer's dress. Acknowledging that the lawyer was really good, the consensus of the sisterhood was uniformly critical. "Unprofessional" was the word used most often. To a woman, the law clerks seethed and sneered. They were truly upset.

That's too much for Jezebel's Phoenix Tso, who writes, "I feel bad for any woman who has had to work with this guy."

It's embarrassing, she says, that Mr Kopf is a judge who can write something like that without feeling shame (she uses somewhat more colourful language).

"Buried within the lecherous and paternalistic tone is a fair point - lawyers should learn how to dress professionally, and for women, that may mean wearing longer skirts and higher cut tops. But there's a more mature and respectful way to do this," she continues.

"Ewwww!" writes Omaha World-Herald columnist Erin Grace. She quotes several female lawyers from Nebraska, one of whom says the judge was being "pretty honest".

Another was less approving: "It makes you not want to... practise in front of him if you're female."

Grace concludes by saying: "If law students should be remembered for what they say, not how they dress, then that should apply to judges."

On Wednesday, Mr Kopf posted an update to his blog, admitting that he "touched a third rail" by writing about "women, apparel and courtroom attire".

He included a reply to Grace:

If, on balance, you think the post was harmful to the image of the federal judiciary and truly treated women as objects, I am very, very, very sorry for that, but I would ask you to pause and reread it. I hope you will find upon objective reflection that the mockery I make of myself and the hyperbole and somewhat mordant tone I employed, made a point worth considering.

In the rough and tumble world of a federal trial practice, it is sometimes necessary to see and react to that world as it is rather than as we wish it would be.

It's a world where a Mid-west judge can admit he's a "dirty old man" and write blog posts that make national news.