By HEATHER RAWLYK
The Capital of Annapolis
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Gripping a soggy tissue, the victim stood at a lectern in the county courthouse and wept as she recounted the hardships the defendant caused her family.
In a row behind her, two men kept their heads down, doing their best to stifle giggles while a sheriff’s deputy gave them the eye.
The woman’s emotional testimony was no laughing matter. But the underwear sticking out of her low-rise pants was well, a little distracting.
Court attire wasn’t always this revealing. Years ago, men wore suits and women donned dresses to go before a judge. Today, county judges are often greeted with flip-flops, cargo shorts, backwards caps and clothing that leaves little to the imagination. While there’s no public dress code for Maryland courts, judges have discretion in maintaining courtroom decorum. Some, it turns out, are stricter than others.
Easels in county courtrooms commonly spotlight a single, hand-scribbled message: “Turn off all cell phones and electronic devices.”
Circuit Judge Paul G. Goetzke’s board goes a bit further, including the addendum: “Tuck in all shirt tails and remember to SMILE.”
Oversized, untucked shirts aren’t just an eyesore for Goetzke, they’re a safety issue, he said.
Goetzke has seen demonstrations where multiple weapons were hidden in baggy clothes.
The courthouse has ample security — a metal detector upon entering and bomb-sniffing dogs — but “There’s no harm in tucking in your shirt,” Goetzke said.
At times, his request is met with a glare and a low-effort tuck of only the front of the shirt.
“They’ll do that just to show me who’s boss,” Goetzke said. “I’ll ask them to please tuck in the rest.”
Goetzke once threw a young man out of his courtroom for wearing shorts. The man was ordered to return for a later hearing with his legs covered. Goetzke has instructed jury commissioner Marci Bailey not to send him jurors wearing shorts. If one slips by, Goetzke will send them to another courtroom.
Another stickler for covered legs is former District Judge Robert C. Wilcox. Before he retired last year, Wilcox, who still makes appearances at District Court in Annapolis for DUI cases, was known to send defendants home to change if they were wearing shorts.
Several years ago, Circuit Judge William C. Mulford, then a defense attorney, talked his pants-wearing client into swapping duds with a fellow attorney’s client, who was wearing shorts.
Mulford had just wrapped up a court appearance when he saw defense attorney T. Joseph Touhey and a client walk out. Touhey explained that Wilcox ordered his client to leave and come back in appropriate attire.
Touhey’s client happened to wear the same size as Mulford’s client. The defendants ran to the bathroom. Minutes later, Touhey’s client emerged in slacks. Wilcox was shocked at how quickly the man returned in the right duds, Mulford said.
Touhey later wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to the district court administrative judge, expressing his interest in opening a haberdashery store in the clerk’s office so defendants would always be dressed to Wilcox’s standards.
In “baby judge school,” training for newly appointed judges, Mulford was told not to make comments about a defendant’s clothing because it might show bias.
They might not articulate their opinion, but every judge has their own standards, Mulford said.
“First impressions are important, that’s just human nature,” Mulford said.
Some clothing choices seem like obvious don’ts.
Mulford is offended by people who wear white “wife beater” tank tops into his courtroom.
“It shows no respect,” he said.
Bob Marley T-shirts worn by defendants in drug cases are also questionable, he said.
Deputy District Public Defender Karl Gordon once had a client, on trial for four carjackings, show up to court wearing the same sweatshirt he committed the crimes in.
Years ago, Deputy State’s Attorney William Roessler watched a man argue a speeding ticket in district court while wearing a jacket with the words, “Hell On Wheels” printed on the back.
“I just wanted to ask him what he was thinking,” Roessler said. “When he got up that morning and thought, `What should I wear for my speeding ticket? Oh, I think I’ll wear my ‘Hell On Wheels’ jacket.’ ”
Defense Attorney David Fischer once had a client show up to a DUI trial wearing a Bud Light T-shirt, featuring Spuds McKenzie, the iconic beer mascot of the 1980s.
“You kind of shake your head at them,” Fischer said. “You want them to enter an insanity plea.”
Gordon has instructed clients, who show up wearing shirts featuring 9mm handguns and marijuana leaves, to turn them inside out, at the very least.
There is such a thing as over-doing it when it comes to courthouse attire.
One man showed up for a manslaughter case wearing a white suit, white shirt and white tie.
“That was a bit much,” Mulford said. “Once in a while a lawyer comes in dressed like a hit man,” Goetzke said, describing a black suit, black shirt and white tie ensemble.
Roessler recalled one couple who, after being reminded that court was a formal proceeding, came in to testify for the state wearing a tuxedo and prom gown.
When he was an intern at the Montgomery State’s Attorney’s Office, Gordon saw a juror return to court after lunch break dressed in full Shakespearean garb.
“He had the tights on and puffy shirt,” Gordon said.
Victim advocates within the county State’s Attorney’s Office advise witnesses and victims to wear something nice, but comfortable.
If they are concerned about what a person might wear, based on the first meeting, prosecutors may inquire, “So, what did you plan to wear to court?” Roessler said.
It’s a balancing act.
“You don’t want the person to wear something that’s distracting or suggestive to the jury, but on the other hand, you want them to wear something that’s who they are,” he said. “You don’t want it to look obvious like they dressed up for this occasion and not anything at all what they would normally wear.”
Prosecutors used to tell witnesses and victims, and their families and friends, to wear to court what they would to church.
That advice doesn’t work as well these days.
“For one, a lot don’t go to church,” Roessler said. “And two, a lot of churches are getting very informal.”
The church attire advice hasn’t been working well for Fischer either.
“You tell them to dress like they’re going to church,” he said. “Typically, a lot of clients dress up like they’re going out on the town.”
The county Office of the Public Defender has suits, slacks, blazers, button down shirts and neckties to loan to clients who don’t want to appear in the green jail suit or can’t afford dress attire. The office doesn’t have clothing for women, but Gordon said he’ll go get a client a dress if need be.
“Recently I had a woman defendant and thought I would have to go to the Dress Barn,” he said. “It ended up working out.”
Gordon makes trips to the Goodwill store on West Street, a few blocks from his office, to pick up duds for clients. He was once in line when a woman inquired about his purchases. When he told her why he was buying them, she led him to her car trunk and revealed a dozen Nordstrom dress shirts for the office to take.
“Our clients looked really good for a little while,” Gordon said.
Public defenders have to be quick to get their clothes back. Often, their clients have to change back into their jail suits right after a court appearance.
“If we don’t pick them up quick enough, the sheriff’s department takes them to Goodwill,” Gordon said. “We end up buying our own shirts back.”
Mulford’s biggest advice for court: look the part to fit the part. Ladies, cover what shouldn’t be seen. Men, grab a dress shirt and tie from the nearest discount retailer – it’s cheaper than a Ravens jersey.
Plus, it won’t offend a judge who is a Redskins fan, he said. Show the court some respect. After all, he’s got to wear a shirt and tie under that robe.
Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://www.hometownannapolis.com/
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)