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Dear Matthew Alice:

Why do judges wear black robes? Do they come in different styles? What's the bill to the taxpayers so they can dress up?

-- Quinn, the net

Ma Alice has spent so much time in the house of black robes, we figured she'd have some good input. She wanted to part of it. But Ma Alice has never been accused of having a great attitude. So we had to fall back on more boring sources. Seems that if you're in the market for a choir robe, you can probably pick up a graduation robe and a judges robe too without leaving the store. Or the catalog, anyway. Manufacturingwise, robes is robes is apparently robes. Perusing an old Jostens book, somewhere past the school rings and mortar boards, we find a basic black judicial number called the "Decision" robe, with traditional full-swinging hemline and wrist-length bell sleeves. Probably gives you that dramatic sweep of fabric as you charge off the bench after a hard day of sentencing. It has a very conservative square yoke, front and back, with tasteful gathers at the yoke and sleeve caps. The perfect ensemble for an easy day of low-profile arraignments.

If you're expecting the press or you need a slightly stronger air of authority to augment your bailiff's sidearm, how about the "Judgment" model. Again a simple shoulder, front, and back yoke is highlighted with machine-sewn fluting and braided cord and button accents at the back. This model comes with optional button cuff sleeve insets for the traditional bell sleeves for that all-important pulled-together look and to cover the fact that underneath you're wearing golf shorts and an Izod T.

If you're expecting Court TV, consider the "Justice," with satin-lined bell sleeves with inset cuffs. Over-the-shoulder V-shaped panels across the back yoke meet in a double-V at the back. Coming or going, you have the definite air of a decision maker not to be trifled with. Considering you have a choice of ten fabrics from polyester to silk, you can pay anywhere from $100 to over $500 for just the right robe and just the right statement. Or maybe if Mom is handy with a sewing machine she can whip you up a few one-of-a-kind ensembles that will be the talk of the courthouse.

The California Government Code 68110 specifies that in open court, while the court's business is being discussed, judges must wear robes. It doesn't say the robes must be black, but it does say the Judicial Council will specify those details. Judicial Council rule 54.5 says that no matter how bad you think you look in black and would really prefer a nice mauve robe, black is the only acceptable color. The robe also must extend from the shoulders in front and back to at least knee level and have sleeves that come to the wrists. So a judge's robe is basically a state-mandated uniform. And by the way, GC 68110 says the judge foots the bill for the robe, not the taxpayers.

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