A universe of worthy messages:  Symbols on robes and signs in the courthouse

In a recent opinion, the Arizona judicial ethics committee advised that:

  • Judicial robes should be free of adornments,
  • Courts may display signs stating that harassment, bias, or prejudice on the basis of race, sex, gender, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, marital status, socioeconomic status, or affiliation are strictly prohibited in the courthouse, but
  • Courts and judicial officers should not “single out any particular category of citizens in offering such assurances.”

Arizona Advisory Opinion 2018-3.

A judge had asked the committee “whether judicial officers in the juvenile court may wear small rainbow-flag pins (or similar symbols) on their robes and post ‘safe place’ placards on courtroom doors that convey acceptance to LGBTQ youth.”  Those measures had been proposed by a court working group on the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.  Noting that “one barrier to LGBTQ youth seeking services is their reticence to trust those involved in the systems,” the working group suggested that certain symbols and signs may reassure “LGBTQ youth that they are in a safe place and dealing with safe people” when at the court.

The judicial ethics committee concluded, however, that, “[n]o matter how worthy the cause suggested by items such as a rainbow pin, domestic violence awareness ribbon, cross, or military veteran’s insignia, the judicial robe should not serve as a platform for conveying messages or for communicating a judge’s personal beliefs or extrajudicial activities.”

The judicial robe powerfully and unmistakably invokes the prestige of judicial office.  Using that prestige to express support for any particular message, organization, cause, or category of citizens necessarily excludes a large universe of equally worthy messages, organizations, causes, and citizens who might feel reassured upon encountering a judge displaying symbols meaningful to them. . . .

Promoting confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary requires that judicial robes be free of symbols, pins, or messages, instead conveying the singular and uniform message that a judge’s fidelity is to the law and to equal justice for all who come before the court.

The opinion cited Michigan Advisory Opinion JI-68 (1993) (a judge may participate in health education and social awareness activities such as AIDS prevention and encourage other persons to support the same cause but should not wear on the judicial robe a symbol indicating the judge’s support or opposition to a particular political, social, or charitable/civic cause, for example, a red AIDS awareness ribbon) and Rule 2.340 of the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration (“During any judicial proceeding, robes worn by a judge must be solid black with no embellishment”).

Similarly, the opinion advised that, “[c]oncerns regarding impartiality and avoiding the appearance of bias likewise control the question about displaying ‘safe place’ signs or symbols in court facilities.  Courthouses should be safe venues for everyone, and they should also be perceived in that fashion.”

Judges may communicate the judiciary’s commitment to prohibiting bias, prejudice, and harassment by posting signs or placards in courthouses that communicate Rule 2.3’s message.  But . . . signs or placards should not single out a subset of the groups enumerated in Rule 2.3 when offering such assurances.

Rule 2.3(B) of the code of judicial conduct provides:  “A judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, or engage in harassment, including but not limited to bias, prejudice, or harassment based upon race, sex, gender, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, marital status, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation, and shall not permit court staff, court officials, or others subject to the judge’s direction and control to do so.”


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