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September 1, 2014

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Is Las Vegas courthouse attire appropriate? You be the judge

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Christopher DeVargas

A look at the various types of attire worn at the Region Justice Courts, downtown Las Vegas, Monday Aug. 19, 2013.

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Judge Conrad Hafen keeps ties on hand for attorneys to wear if they don't wear a tie to court.

Court Attire

A look at the various types of attire worn at the Region Justice Courts, downtown Las Vegas, Monday Aug. 19, 2013. Launch slideshow »

A young woman in rhinestone-covered high heels and a form-fitting baby doll top that says “Sexy” faces prostitution charges. A woman accused of marijuana possession makes an appearance while wearing a necklace with a marijuana pendant dangling from it. A man with a T-shirt that says “Question Authority” stands before a judge who will decide the fate of his domestic violence case.

Welcome to the Clark County Regional Justice Center.

While the courthouse may once have been a place where formality and polish were the norm, things have changed.

It can be baffling for judges when a defendant doesn’t seem to consider that when prison time is on the table — or even a fine, for that matter — it might be a good time to dress up. As defense attorneys routinely advise their clients, wearing a professional set of clothes is a way to show respect for the court and make a favorable impression on a judge.

Yet fashion-wise, a DUI hearing often has a lot in common with a trip to the airport, another place where many people have traded formality for convenience.

Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t come to the courthouse in pajamas, said one marshal who was working security at the front entrance recently.

In June, Clark County Chief Judge Jennifer Togliatti kicked a defendant out of the courtroom for appearing in a pink polo, cargo shorts and flip-flops. She sternly informed him that the courthouse wasn’t Walmart, and she rescheduled his case for a later date.

The defendants in Togliatti’s courtroom face gross misdemeanors or felonies — charges that could lead to jail time. Although shorts and a collared shirt might be deemed appropriate in some lower-level courts, Togliatti didn’t feel the attire was suitable under the circumstances the man was facing.

Enforcing the courthouse dress code is somewhat of an art. For many judges, it is delicate balance of determining if what the person is wearing is actually their best outfit. Many defendants don’t have the means to purchase professional clothing, and judges say they don’t want to embarrass someone in that situation.

Togliatti said people in her office still talk about a defendant who came to court some time ago in a black Spandex jumpsuit that left nothing to the imagination. Although some were uncomfortable with how revealing the ensemble was, Togliatti said she let the defendant stick around because it was clear the jumpsuit was the finest piece of clothing in his wardrobe.

Official courthouse rules state, “Proper courtroom attire is required. No shorts or tank tops are allowed in the courtroom, shoes are required. T-shirts, which show offensive slogans or pictures, are not allowed. Hats should be removed before entering the courtroom.”

However, the shorts rule routinely goes unenforced, especially when temperatures soar past 100 and keeping cool can become a health issue instead of strictly a matter of appearance.

Las Vegas Township Judge Joseph Sciscento said he also had concerns about how much authority he wields over someone’s fashion choice. His concerns were underscored by U.S. Supreme Court case Cohen v. California, which ruled in favor of a man who was arrested for wearing a jacket that said “(Expletive) the Draft” in a courthouse. The court ruled his jacket fell under his free speech rights.

It isn’t just litigants who are dressing down, but attorneys, too. Lawyers often shirk sports coats and suit jackets, and some don’t bother with ties.

"When your attorney doesn't dress up, you don't want to either," Sciscento said.

When Las Vegas Township Judge Conrad Hafen became a judge in 2011 and noticed some attorneys weren’t wearing ties, he went to a thrift store and picked up a few funky ties from the 1960s and ‘70s along with two children’s clip-on ties. He then gave attorneys who showed up without ties a choice: wear one from his thrift store collection, or have their case heard last or even moved to a different day.

What is appropriate for female attorneys to wear varies widely among the legal community and can be somewhat controversial. Is leopard print too flashy? Can dresses be swapped for suits? Hair up or down?

Defendants and attorneys don’t have to just worry about whether or not a judge will take edgy or sloppy dress into consideration. Juries may also take into account whether or not the defendant or attorney looks sharp.

Women in pantsuits might even still offend some.

Judge Las Vegas Township Judge Janiece Marshall said she thinks female attorneys may still be nervous about wearing a pantsuit in front of a jury, out of fear of alienating a conservative juror.

In the last 10 years there has been a dramatic slide in how seriously people dress for court, Sciscento said. He thinks it is less of a reflection of how people view the formality of the justice system and more a result of a cultural shift toward the casual.

Deirdre Clemente, an assistant history professor at UNLV who studies clothing and how it relates to history and societal changes, said Las Vegas is like other Southwestern cities in that dress codes here have become relaxed compared to other areas of the country.

While there are restaurants that require a jacket or tie here, it’s easy enough to find somewhere nice that doesn’t, she said. On the East Coast, you’re less likely to be able to get away with that, she said. The cultural standards here translate into how people show up to places like the courthouse.

Throw in the city’s “Vegas, baby!” party atmosphere, and the approach to courthouse attire becomes even less reverential.

"I can't imagine people dressing this way in other courts,” Sciscento said.

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