10 February 2014
Justice Matters: Behind the robe, Missouri judges are committed to justice for all
The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell make up her most recent Justice Matters column.
As a judge of the Supreme Court of Missouri, I have the opportunity to speak with many people, from young children to senior citizens. I always invite questions, but I am amazed the most frequently asked questions are not about the courts or the law, but about my robe.
Although I consider my robe “my uniform,” I was surprised to learn that the judges of the Supreme Court of Missouri have not always worn robes. Before the mid-1960s, the judges wore dark suits during oral arguments. And the thought of adopting robes was abhorrent to some ‐ Judge Sidna P. Dalton reportedly once declared, “They’ll never get one on me.” Today they are commonplace on our Court.
But the robe is so much more than just a judge’s uniform. Each time I put on my robe, I remember the oath I took to support and defend the United States and Missouri constitutions. As judges, we are required to interpret the law without regard for personal beliefs or popular opinions. The robes signify the erasing of those personal opinions and preferences from our minds. As former United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor states, the black robe “shows that all of us judges are engaged in upholding the Constitution and the rule of law.”
My robe is almost 19 years old now, and I am honored to have worn it since 1995, when I became a judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals. It almost looks like new. Some of the buttons are a little loose, and the pockets have been mended, but I hope to wear it the rest of my career.
The wear and tear may come from my enjoyment of others trying on my robe. When I travel around the state for speaking engagements, I bring my robe with me no matter the age group. At the end, I quiz the audience, allowing winners to try on my robe. I want them all to visualize that anyone − regardless of gender, race, hometown or school − can become a judge.
I also like everyone to see that, behind our robes, judges are the same people they see shopping at the grocery store, worshiping in church or cheering in the stands at a local basketball game. But when those judges put on their robes every day in our Missouri courthouses, they are reaffirming their commitment to “justice for all.”