PRINT March 1995


Judiciary Drag

IN AN ERA when fashion arbiters and downtown types are addicted to judicious black robes, ideally from Comme des Garçons, the usual attire of the chief justice of the Supreme Court would seem to put him ahead of the game. Instead he has gone D’Oyly Carte. As the Court sat for the first session of the new year, William Rehnquist sported a black gown with four gold stripes on each arm. A spokesperson would explain that the judge’s outfit was of his own design, inspired by the Lord Chancellor’s robe in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe.

Unfortunately, Rehnquist’s démodé whimsy signals something more pernicious than mere belatedness. This is, after all, the man Ronald Reagan named chief justice, the man Senator Edward Kennedy has decried as careless and “extreme.” And though bizarrely inspired, his capricious pomp—recalling the toy-soldier outfitting of Nixon’s White House guards—suggests a conservative conception of the judicial. In A Nation under Lawyers, Mary Ann Glendon identifies “romantic judging” as a vice of today’s judiciary, referring to the reform/left sensibility that sometimes goes into the law. Yet it is not the passionate engagement of today’s judges that betrays a romantic bent in justice’s sword; on the contrary, it is those who purport to hold intransigently to tradition whom we must fear the most. Justice Clarence Thomas is allegedly determined to spend decades on the bench avenging himself on the liberal conscience. Now, Justice Rehnquist turns the Supreme Court into a Savoyard sham.

Satirizing the pomposity of British lawmaking, Iolanthe makes the Lord Chancellor a lusty fool, ever falling in love with the orphan girls in his charge. (Perhaps Rehnquist should give the part to Justice Thomas.) At the same time, it expresses a yearning for a time “when Britain really ruled the waves.” In appropriating Iolanthe’s dress, Rehnquist must be inspired by the latter mood: he is trying to make a gesture from the past, or rather from fantasy, reach into the present, just as Reagan tried to make a lost small-town America seem to justify a mean contemporary ideology. On the high court, it seems, romance is manifest not in Glendon’s sense of nurturing women and minorities, accommodating social change, and making the Constitution an abidingly viable document, but only in masquerade.

If justice is really a light-operatic farce, Rehnquist has many possibilities open to him. What next? Powdered wigs, perhaps—fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld is already powdering his ponytail. Unhappily, Rehnquist’s sartorial judgment is neither benign nor droll. This treacherous display fantasizes the judiciary into the past, into a Victorian dialectic between orphanages and privileges. If justice were indeed blind, it wouldn’t be stooping to peer at its reflection in Narcissus’ pool.

Richard Martin is curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.