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By:  Christian Noble, Leadership Academy Fellow 2019-20

A new program hopes to level the playing field for litigants by offering court-appropriate attire on the day of court. Litigants face several barriers when they have business with Maryland courts, including insufficient knowledge of court processes, an absence of legal knowledge and a lack of legal representation. Another barrier is a lack of court appropriate clothing. The Maryland State Bar Association’s Leadership Academy Class of 2020 has a project to help litigants dress for court. Through their Courtroom Closet project, the Class of 2020 will provide court appropriate clothing to all who require it for day-of-court use in the form of either a blazer or belt in the Bourne Wing of the Upper Marlboro Courthouse. The closet will be open in April on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 8:30am until 11:30am for the morning session and again from 12:45pm until 3:30pm for the afternoon session.

Litigants who lack court appropriate clothing may be subject to implicit biases in the courtroom in the event they are not shut out completely by judges or court staff who deem litigant attire as inappropriate. Implicit bias is an unconscious attitude or belief about a person or group of people. Also referred to as unconscious bias, implicit bias most often manifests as negative attitudes or beliefs about a marginalized group based on any factor, including race, sexual identity, or social class. These unconscious beliefs are learned behaviors developed, in part, from schooling, where a person grew up, and with whom they associated. Few people would admit they harbor a conscious bias; however, they may not recognize when they make an unfair judgment or comment. Implicit biases are difficult, if not impossible, to train out of individuals, however, these biases can be minimized by connecting to people on an individual level (McCombs School of Business The University of Texas at Austin, 2018). Such connection may reduce the occurrence of implicit bias, however, brief and infrequent litigant interactions in courtrooms do not provide opportunities for personalization. As a result, implicit bias remains a barrier to access to justice.
Generally, litigants appear in court infrequently and for short periods, there is likely no opportunity to rebut any implicit bias held by a judge or court staff. One noticeable implicit bias is one of social class, which may manifest in the clothing litigants wear upon entering the courthouse or appearing before a judge. While a litigant may view their clothing as appropriate, judges or court staff may have different norms or established mores of what clothing is considered appropriate.

Judges or court staff may express implicit biases about clothing through favoring evidentiary decisions of one party over another; imposing harsher sentencing or fines; or barring access to court services all together by demanding litigants re-appear at a later time or day when dressed appropriately. A delay, however, may create an impediment to justice, for example, by delaying the remedy the person was seeking or making it hard for those who must take time off work to attend court. There is a need to provide court appropriate attire for day of court use and there are a few groups filing that need.
The Maryland Judiciary’s Administrative Office of the Courts reported 89% of litigants in domestic cases are unrepresented at some point during their case (Administrative Office of the Court, 2020). As a result, litigants may not receive guidance on court appropriate attire until in front of a judge. Not for profit groups sometimes offer court appropriate attire to clients for day of court use. The House of Ruth provides clothing to clients they represent in family court matters. The Office of the Public Defender maintains clothing for the incarcerated criminal defendants they represent. But some non-profits and other government entities have a limited reach. Those that do help provide court appropriate attire only to their own clients.

The MSBA Leadership Academy Class of 2020 is launching their program to help a broader range of litigants. While a blazer to cover exposed shoulders or a belt to cinch sagging pants will only solve one issue, the future leaders of the profession in Maryland hope that by promoting equality of appearance, they can enhance access to justice. Email for more information on the program or to make monetary or clothing donations.