Open Letter to Chief District Court Judge Rader

Re: Shirts tucked in, pants pulled up.
Dear Judge Rader:
It is with genuine reluctance and hesitation that I broach this matter with you, but, insignificant as it may at first appear, this is actually a serious subject, and one that I strongly feel needs to be addressed. And sooner rather than later.
You may not be aware that there are judges on the District Court Bench who require that certain people who appear in court before them dress in a manner that satisfies their — the judges’ — particular sartorial standards. I refer specifically to the obsessive and unnecessary fixation on tucked-in shirts and other fashion-requirements these particular judges impose on the people who appear before them in their — the peoples’ — courtrooms.
District Court is the court that the public, by a long shot, has the most contact with. In fact, other than the universally hated DMV, District Court is probably the only division of any branch of government that most people will ever have any contact with; they’re not likely to go watch the legislature enact laws or the executive branch do whatever it does, or sit in on sessions of Superior Court or either appellate court. But most people will probably have some reason to be in District Court at least once in their lives.
A trip to District Court — in any capacity — is a wonderful opportunity for an individual to watch his government in action. It should be an experience that fills the individual with a sense of pride in his country and its institutions, but perhaps more importantly, exemplifies the fact of the respect that the individual’s government extends towards him, towards us, towards “we the people.” And in turn, the individual’s experience in district Court should and can instill in him a genuine respect for his government, or at least this division of this branch of government.
I cannot stress enough my belief in how crucial it is that the citizen who comes into District Court to observe or participate in his democracy be afforded the greatest respect that any citizen of any society has the right and expectation to receive: the respect of his government. It’s his government. It’s his courtroom. He deserves and should demand to be treated with the highest possible respect. But, sadly, in Wake County District Court, he’s not.
In Wake County District Court, if he’s not dressed in the manner satisfactory to the judge’s subjective whim, he’s treated like a social pariah, a criminal, in fact — the very thing he is presumed not to be. This embarrassing and offensive attack on the unsuspecting citizen in District Court is happening in criminal court every day; interestingly, I don’t think judges are telling people how to dress in civil court — I suspect this has something to do with the different economic class of those who appear in civil court versus those who appear in criminal court. The citizen who appears in criminal District Court is being told that his perfectly acceptable manner of attire within his own community is unacceptable in his courtroom. And he’s being told so in terms that are decidedly disrespectful … as if the “dressing down” alone weren’t disrespectful enough.
And one can’t help but notice that the manner of dress that is so repugnant happens to be the style of the young, urban, black male. And one adopted by young men of all races and an entire hugely successful and popular genre of socially-conscious, ironic, smart, message-infused music — hip hop: the untucked shirt, the low-slung, baggy jeans, the puffy jacket, the self-mocking oversized “bling.” Who are we — who is anyone — to tell people that they can’t come to court dressed in a manner that reflects their cultural identity? Who are we to tell people that their chosen mode of dress is a disgrace … especially when that mode of dress is actually self-consciously chosen, when it actually is a matter of cultural pride? The British government banned the wearing of the kilt in Scotland in 1746: ask me how successful that was in quelling Scottish nationalism.
Your Honor, again, I iterate my reluctance in raising this subject (this letter could be taken as unpleasant an attack on the judges in question as the behavior that I am describing — it’s not intended to). But while many on our side of the bar just roll their eyes at these judicial dress-code tongue-lashings, others of us can’t fail to notice the resentment, anger and hatred in the eyes of so many on the other side of the bar, not to mention the victim himself. These are not the emotions we want to inspire in the people that every member of every branch of government is duty-bound to serve. These are not the responses we want from an already suspicious and marginalized group.
While there may be plenty of reasons for people to be disgusted in the legislative and executive branches of government, the judicial branch, the gatekeeper branch, can be and has been the people’s savior. The judicial branch of government has plenty to be proud of: Brown v. Board of Education, for example; any dismissal of a criminal case because the Defendant’s constitutional rights were violated, for another. The people know and should know that the courts are there to protect them from the other two branches of government and to mete out appropriate punishments to the guilty. This positive relationship between the people and the courts is something we should strive to preserve, not flout. After all, if anyone has the right to be irritated and impatient it’s the criminal defendant in District Court. But instead of being shown the respect he is entitled to in his courtroom, he’s being shown nothing but naked, ugly, disrespect. He’s being berated and belittled … for how he’s dressed of all things. If this young man didn’t hate everything he thinks of as the government already, he certainly does now. Whatever sense of societal belonging this young man might have had before walking into this courtroom is now forever snuffed out.
I honestly feel that we are squandering a wonderful opportunity for the government — at least your branch if it — to show the members of this disenfranchised and disillusioned group that they are respected, appreciated, accepted and wholly welcomed into the larger society — as they are, just the way they are.
Judge Rader, I beseech you to have the deputy sheriffs take down those signs outside the courtrooms telling people how to dress. I implore you to encourage, if not order, the judges to not even comment on the way members of the public in the courtrooms are dressed, or tell them how to dress, or worse, threaten them with jail-time because of how they’re dressed.
I think that while the motivation behind the actions of those judges who engage in the dress-code behavior may be well-intentioned, it is horribly misplaced. And almost certainly has the opposite effect of whatever noble end those judges are hoping to achieve. Please don’t dismiss my concerns as either unimportant or expressed for any purpose other than one that is honest and heart-felt. I truly believe we are doing more harm than good by allowing people to be treated this way. In fact, we are doing nothing but harm and achieving everything but good by allowing it.
John McWilliam