Why Do Justices Wear Black Robes?
We looked back in history to figure out why Supreme Court justices wear black robes—and where the tradition of robes in the courtroom came from.
You probably remember learning about the Supreme Court in school and seeing pictures of famous Supreme Court justices like Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You’ve also likely heard the news that President Joe Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to succeed the retiring Justice Stephen Breyer in the Supreme Court. If confirmed, Judge Jackson would be the first Black woman to sit on America’s highest court.
Supreme Court rulings have changed the course of history, including when same-sex marriage became legal. But how well do you know your Supreme Court history? Alongside knowing why the Supreme Court has nine justices and why Supreme Court justices serve for life, have you ever wondered why justices wear black robes?
The history of why Supreme Court justices wear robes
Before we answer “why do justices wear black robes?”, let’s first address why Supreme Court justices wear robes as opposed to suits and ties. “We do not know the exact reasons why the Supreme Court justices decided to don robes, but it is most likely due to the tradition of having judges wear robes that was passed down for centuries in many European countries, most notably England,” Clare Cushman, Director of Publications at the Supreme Court Historical Society, tells Reader’s Digest. “There is no evidence that the Justices wore robes at their initial sitting in 1790, but they did decide to continue the long-held tradition and first wore robes at their February 1792 sitting. Generally, robes are considered to give court proceedings a solemnity for the serious nature of the work.”
Fun fact: Supreme Court justices didn’t always wear black robes
It might surprise you to know that the robes Supreme Court justices wear weren’t always black. In fact, some were a variety of colors. “From 1792 to about 1800, the Court wore a black robe with red and white elements on the sleeves and down the front of the robe,” Cushman says. You can an example of this at the National Gallery of Art, which has an oil on canvas portrait of John Jay by artist Gilbert Stuart.
So why do justices wear black robes?
Long story short, there’s no real solid answer. “There is no specific reason—at some point, the Court changed from the more colorful robes to all black, sometime around 1800 to 1801,” says Cushman. “Eventually, this tradition spread to other courts and most federal judges adopted the all-black robe by the 1880s.” Cushman also adds that while the Court’s tradition generally comes from English traditions, other European nations like France also wore robes.
The black robes in modern times
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was the first woman on the Supreme Court, shared her thoughts about wearing black robes with Smithsonian Magazine:
My fondest thoughts about my robe have to do with the tradition at the Supreme Court for putting it on. On argument days, a buzzer sounds about five minutes before the oral argument starts. The justices go to the robing room—the court’s version of a locker room. Each justice has a locker; attendants help the justices fasten their robes. Then the justices, without fail, engage in a wonderful custom. Each justice shakes the hand of every other justice before walking into the courtroom—an important reminder that, despite the justices’ occasional differences in opinion, the court is a place of collegiality and common purpose.
It goes to show that the black robe is more than just a robe; it’s a sign of unification in America’s highest court. That’s a powerful sentiment we can all remember next time we ask, “why do justices wear black robes?”