Editor’s note: This story was originally published on July 23, 2009.
TAMPA — It’s hard to believe anyone facing a domestic violence charge could be so impudent. But there the defendant stood before Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta in a T-shirt featuring the Tasmanian Devil. "Pain is my business," the man’s shirt read, "and business is good." Ficarrotta didn’t think twice.
"I made him go outside and put his shirt inside out," the judge recalled.
Other judges haven’t been as lenient, sending home defendants in shorts or worse, and even holding some fashion offenders brazen enough to object in contempt of court. Common sense would seem to prevail when, say, your life is on the line and you need to dress to impress.
But what’s proper to some of us isn’t necessarily the standard for everyone. Step inside Courtroom No. 18, where defendants awaiting arraignment are treated to a special Judge Lawrence Lefler version of "What Not To Wear.’’ "Tuck in your shirt, pull up your pants and keep your pants above your waist the entire time you are in the courtroom," he politely instructs the audience. "No Scarface. No marijuana leaf. No pants down."
Alta King was so worried about her boyfriend passing the dress code, she brought her portly paramour a spare shirt just in case.
"It didn’t button all the way down," she said of the first one.
Those who dare to break Lefler’s style rules are sent to the back of the line. Second-time violators will wait another 30 days to plead their case; they arrive at 8 a.m., only to be dead last to see the judge. Most judges are reasonable, Lefler said. Some people can’t afford a suit, but they can still dress neatly in clean clothes. Don’t wear a Tony Montana T-shirt emblazoned with a pile of cocaine if you are in drug court, he advised. And skip the "full-on Cat-In-The-Hat" headgear like the red-and-white striped number Lefler’s bailiff witnessed recently. And don’t even think about traipsing in front of circuit Judge Daniel Perry with "house-style" pants. Perry, who presides over probation violations, made headlines last fall when he ordered back to jail 61 inmates strutting through his courtroom with standard-issue orange uniform bottoms slung well below their bottoms.
Improper courthouse attire has been a long-standing distraction for judges across the state. Two decades ago, a Citrus County judge sentenced a defendant to 10 days in jail for wearing a T-shirt portraying the backside of four women in thongs standing in a pickup with the caption: Haulin’ Ass.
"Do you think that’s funny?" Judge Gary Graham asked the man. "Love it," the man reportedly replied.
He was held in contempt of court and later sued the judge, but two appellate courts upheld the conviction and sentence. Graham eventually was removed from the bench for abuse of power and judicial misconduct.
In 1994, Broward County circuit Judge Barry Goldstein’s ban on shorts prompted a showdown between the judge and an assistant public defender, who argued that it discriminated against his clients. Goldstein eventually dropped the ban.
"A judge can control the decorum in his courtroom," said Chief Judge Manuel Menendez, who presides over the 13th Judicial Circuit Court here in Tampa. But judges - and bailiffs -- need to keep in mind that times have changed.
"Obviously, there’s been a relaxation in the standard of dress," said Menendez, who remembers when people wore coats and ties to University of Florida football games and dressed in their Sunday best for church. Now, he said, "Pastors don’t care what people wear. They just want them in the pews."
On the Clerk of the Circuit Court’s Web site, the suggested dress for court is "business casual attire." In Florida, where sandals adorn feet year-round, that can mean Bermuda shorts and a skull-and-roses-adorned Ed Hardy T-shirt, or a halter-style sundress with a shrug covering bare shoulders. Or it can mean a denim bustier hidden beneath a snug white suit like the one worn to court recently by Liza Relis of Las Vegas. The 28-year-old Realtor was there to support a friend, not to go before a judge. Still, she dressed to impress, she said. And to be a little sexy.
"I’m still young, so I still have that youthful look," Relis said.
She described her outfit, a tight cotton jacket and skirt paired with sleek black heels, as "elegance, ladylike." Yet to the small crowd of uniformed male officers gawking at her curvy form in the courthouse annex, it seemed to say "hubba-hubba!" Other clothing choices spied inside the courthouses straddling Twiggs Street didn’t exactly evoke "business casual." A squat woman in tight jeans and a Kelly green shirt revealed tanned skin from her neck to mid-chest. Her saving grace: no exposed tattoos. Another woman waiting outside Judge James Dominguez’s courtroom wore a mini skirt, a tank top with spaghetti straps and flip-flops. "I’m not going inside," she testified in her own defense. You’ll see go-go boots. Shimmery nightclub dresses. Ripped jeans. Stained shirts. Dirty tennis shoes. Leggings stretched beyond all reason.
"What you wear is as important as what you say," said Melody Harris, a 32-year-old Tampa mom in court last week to testify on her son’s behalf. "Your appearance is your first asset. People see you before they hear you."
And your clothes say a lot about you - right or wrong. Harris hoped her long purple and gold floral dress screamed: "I’m not a "hoochie mama!" She only had a few minutes to get to the courthouse, she said. "But I still wanted to make sure my outfit sent the right message: We won’t be back." The clothes won’t change the facts, but in court, intangibles do count, said Lisa K. Ford, a certified image consultant for Invent Your Image in Tampa. When it comes to courtroom style, always opt for business professional. That doesn’t include casual Friday-type outfits, Ford cautioned.
"Casual Fridays are a dominant thing in the workplace," she said. "But business casual and business professional are very different things."
Business professional for men means a business suit with a tie and dark-colored or black shoes. Women should wear dress slacks or a skirt suit with low-heeled shoes and, yes, pantyhose.
"In Florida, the rules are less rigid," Ford said. "Florida is so tourist-driven; you rarely see pantyhose anymore. But it’s still considered [part of] the business professional look [for women]." After all, image matters - at the grocery store and especially at the courthouse.
"If you take the time to care for yourself," Ford said, "it will give others the confidence that you will do the same for them in both personal and professional affairs."