The Ottumwa Courier

June 6, 2011

Why does a judge wear a black robe?

Judge Lucy Gamon

OTTUMWA — The tradition of judges wearing black robes goes back several centuries, and the origin of this practice isn’t clear. Perhaps the best accepted theory is that the custom of wearing a robe started in England, with the death of Queen Mary II in 1694. British judges appeared at her funeral dressed in black as a sign of mourning.

The mourning period lasted for several years after Queen Mary’s death, and by that time the practice of wearing a black robe was well established.

Fast forward to America during the Revolutionary period. Many of the Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, wanted nothing to do with traditions that reminded them of the English aristocracy and the trappings of power and influence. Others, such as John Adams, wanted to maintain some such traditions from the mother country. Eventually, the two sides reached a compromise: “No” to long, white, powdered wigs, and “yes” to black robes.

The styles and sometimes even the colors of judicial robes have changed gradually over the years. Robes have become simpler in design and not every judge wears a robe for every proceeding. Modern judges often obtain their robes from the same companies that manufacture choir robes. This fact may explain why some judges now opt for brighter colors, rather than the traditional black. Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist wore a black robe with gold stripes, a fashion he adopted after playing the part of a judge in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

Whatever the style or color, the ritual of donning the robe reminds the judge that he or she is taking on a role larger than self. This ritual is further a reminder of the oath all judges take to be fair and impartial. A judge wearing the black robe is engaged in the serious business of doing justice to the best of his or her ability.

Judge Gamon serves as a District Court Judge in Iowa’s 8-A Judicial District, and maintains her chambers in Ottumwa. This public-service message is part of a series from area judges, relating to the administration of justice. Judge Gamon may be contacted at lucy.gamon@iowacourts.gov