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Have business at the Jefferson County courthouse? Don't show up wearing your muscle shirt or see-through top.
In a combined effort to bring more decorum to the courthouse and improve the first impressions that litigants make on judges hearing their cases, Jefferson County Sheriff Roger Mulch has instituted a strict dress code for all non-employees entering the building, including attorneys.
'[Y]our first lesson' in 'common sense'
The policy, which originally banned wearing any kind of shorts, is a work in progress, the sheriff said. It has already been relaxed to prohibit only "improper shorts," but it still expressly bans other fashion statements such as "muscle shirts," "mesh or see-through shirts," "hats or do-rags," "clothing with inappropriate or offensive logos, pictures, or writing," and pajamas and slippers.
"It's a rule of thumb that if I've never met you, I've already formed an opinion of you just by the way you dress," Mulch said. "Now, if you're in front of me [in the courtroom] and I'm a judge, I'm going to judge who you are based on your appearance."
Mulch said people should dress with a minimal level of respect for the judicial system, and the new policy is designed to help teach some people what is, and what is not, appropriate attire for their day in court.
"The way I look at it is, if you're coming to court and no one has ever taught you about the self control, or common sense, that goes into dressing appropriately, well, that's something that cannot really be fully taught, but we're prepared to give the first lesson," Mulch said.
Properly dressed litigants will not be pre-judged on their appearance, Mulch said, which can only help their chances of having their cases fully decided on their merits, not on their muscle shirts.
"If you're dressed like a slob, with your pants hanging off…with a see-through top that's not covering the things it should be covering, or a shirt with offensive logos, it's just not going to help your cause," Mulch said.
He has consulted with judges and other courthouse personnel for input on just how strict the dress code should be. For example, Mulch said people tended to agree that shorts are not ideal attire for doing business in a courthouse, but some people believed shorts that reach the fingertips when a person's arms are held straight down to their sides should be allowed.
"Any time you implement something new, it's an ever-changing policy. It originally said 'shorts' were prohibited, because the resident judge did not want shorts in her courtroom, but after hearing some other ideas, we backed off from that to just 'improper shorts,'" Mulch said. "We're going to meet with the office holders again this month to check again as to how it's worded."
The new dress code does not apply to courthouse personnel, Mulch said, because their employee handbook already contains a similar policy.
"In 32 years, we've never had a problem with an employee coming to work and having to be sent home to change clothes," he said. "We've also had no problems with anyone else who is a staple member of the court, like an attorney or court reporter."
Mulch said the policy is designed to target litigants, witnesses, and other people who do not come to the courthouse on a regular basis, for those are the people who too frequently don inappropate clothing, particularly in warm-weather months. Nonetheless, the code applies equally to all litigants, attorneys, court reporters, and other professionals handling matters in the courthouse.
"The courthouse is a place that deserves some respect, and lawyers already know that," Mulch said. "But it's time for us to get everyone thinking about their appearance and the impact it has....Let's bring back some core ethics here, and let's get some respect back inside the courthouse."
Nashville-based attorney Thomas C. Speedie Jr. usually handles cases in neighboring Washington County, but he frequently makes trips to the Jefferson County court in Mt. Vernon. He said he has already observed the dress-code notices posted on a large sign outside the courthouse doors and in other places throughout the building.
"It kind of amazes me...before I ever became a lawyer, I assumed that even if I'm just going in for a speeding ticket, the judge would be happier if I at least wore a nice shirt and pair of pants," Speedie said. "We [lawyers] all wear the 'uniform' and we all know what that is. It's really the people who show up to pay speeding tickets and other minor criminal matters where you tend to see people dressed in lounge pants and fuzzy slippers."