Courtroom dress code met with mixed reactions

By Matt Kaminer

The Rockbridge County Courthouse recently adopted a new dress code, which includes collared shirts and pants for men and covered midriffs for women. However, based on a recent letter to The News-Gazette, not everyone sees this step as progress.

The code took effect Sept. 1, but presiding Circuit Court Judge Anita Filson began working on the policy in August. The new policy prohibits shorts for anyone over the age of 10 and also bans any clothing containing obscene language or references, especially any references to controlled substances.

Circuit Court Clerk Bruce Patterson says each person visiting the court is subject to the dress code, and defendants in criminal cases have been the biggest offenders in the past.

“We’ve had defendants on drug crimes who had to leave the court and change because they’re wearing shirts with a marijuana plant or other drug references on them,” Patterson said. “The attorneys need to do a better job of making sure their clients are appropriately dressed.”

On Sept. 23, June Newbery, who has lived in Lexington for over 20 years, wrote a critical letter to The News-Gazette. She questioned whether Filson, who took office July 1, had the right to regulate dress for those attending court, and characterized the dress code as “hasty” and “ill-considered.”

“One of the weaknesses of a dress code is that it implies that we are all required to conform to a particular standard of dress that the code makers consider acceptable,” Newbery wrote. “Their opinion of acceptability may vary from time to time and become obsolete in just a few years.”

Newbury could not be reached for comment.

Lexington resident Phillip Blackburn, a local mediator, countered with a Nov. 9 letter to the newspaper, defending the policy as common sense.

“Wearing a swim suit to the beach is appropriate,” Blackburn wrote. “Wearing that swim suit to a wedding, a funeral or a job interview would clearly be inappropriate. A trial judge can decide what courtroom attire is appropriate.”

Blackburn went on to write that Virginia trial judges are required to comply with Virginia Canons of Judicial Conduct, which allows a judge to “require order, decorum, and civility in proceedings before the judge.” This mandate, Blackburn insisted, allowed Filson to enact the new policy.

Patterson is puzzled that anyone would object to the dress code, and believes the requirement is typical for Virginia courts.

“I don’t think the policy requires people to conform to a certain style,” Patterson said. “The judge isn’t requiring people to wear a jacket and tie. They just need to dress with respect for the court.”

The new policy also bans electronic devices from the courtroom, which Patterson believes was necessary because there have been several instances of cell phones disrupting court proceedings.

A copy of the dress code as well as a list of prohibited electronic devices in the courtroom can be found in the circuit court clerk’s office on the first floor of the courthouse.

Judge Filson was unavailable for comment.