Op-Ed: Was Nebraska’s ‘dirty old man’ judge wrong to ask female lawyers to cover up?

Calista Flockhart starred as a young lawyer on "Ally McBeal" from 1997 to 2002.
Calista Flockhart starred as a young lawyer on “Ally McBeal” from 1997 to 2002.
(Fox Broadcasting)

Last week I blogged about a middle school dress code in Illinois that bars girls from wearing shorts, leggings and yoga pants to school. All too predictably, the dress code has drawn the wrath of feminists, whose credo is that females of all ages should be allowed to wear whatever they like whenever and wherever they like, and if you’ve got a problem with that, you’re promoting “rape culture.”

Now, a federal judge in Nebraska has blogged a version of a dress code for young female lawyers, pointing out that it’s not really a good idea for them to sport revealing necklines and hemlines while they’re arguing cases in courtrooms. The judge, Richard Kopf, made a similar argument to that of the middle school administrators in Illinois: that Ally McBeal-wear, now said to be increasingly common among younger female members of the bar, gets its wearers a lot of attention -- of the wrong kind.

On his blog, Hercules and the Umpire, Kopf wrote on March 25:

“Around these parts there is a wonderfully talented and very pretty female lawyer who is in her late twenties. She is brilliant, she writes well, she speaks eloquently, she is zealous but not overly so, she is always prepared, she treats others, including her opponents, with civility and respect, she wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest. I especially appreciate the last two attributes….


“From the foregoing, and in my continuing effort to educate the bar, I have three rules that young women lawyers should follow when considering how to dress for court:

“1. You can’t win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it.

“2. It is not about you. That goes double when you are appearing in front of a jury.

“3. Think about the female law clerks. If they are likely to label you, like Jane Curtin, an ignorant slut behind your back, tone it down.”

Kopf also wrote: “In candor, I have been a dirty old man ever since I was a very young man.”

How the sparks flew! Poor Kopf -- he probably thought he had plenty of feminist street cred because, years earlier, he’d ruled unconstitutional both a Nebraska law and a federal law outlawing partial-birth abortion.

Here’s s.e smith of xoJane reading Kopf the riot act:

“Uhm, gross? It certainly wouldn’t make me want to appear in his courtroom, even wearing what he seems to deem acceptably conservative dress. The thought that the judge would be paying more attention to my breasts and legs than what’s coming out of my mouth is super upsetting.”

And here’s Phoenix Tso of Jezebel:

“It’s embarrassing that this guy is a [expletive] federal judge. Is the gender double-standard in law so pronounced that a man of Judge Kopf’s supposed stature can write [expletive] like this without feeling any shame? Without being in danger of others ‘seething and sneering’ behind his back for his good ol’ boy sexism? I feel bad for any woman who has had to work with this guy.”

So abashed was Kopf that on March 31 he posted a 10-point mea culpa for what he described as his “edgy humor.” He assured his readers that “the federal trial courts (including the one in which I am privileged to preside) are places where all female lawyers are safe.”

Now, Kopf did make a few mistakes in his March 25 post. First of all, he included in the post an incident in which one of his daughters had shown up at her sister’s church wedding in a low-cut dress, at which point he had made his wife, the daughter’s stepmother, hunt for a sweater to cover up the bare flesh. Embarrassing one’s family members is a no-no for bloggers (and any other writers), and it didn’t help that Kopf mentioned all of them -- his wife, his daughter and her sister the bride -- by name. Second, he failed to point out, as he admitted later, that the “very pretty female lawyer” with the attention-grabbing “ample chest” was a composite, not a specific attorney who had argued in his courtroom. And third, while Kopf might pride himself on his subtle, self-deprecating humor, calling oneself a “dirty old man” can be easily misinterpreted, especially when one is actually an old -- or at least oldish -- man.

Still, the points Kopf made were well taken. Men really are “both pigs and prudes.” Because of the way their brains are hard-wired, they find it hard to resist staring at scantily clad women. Polite men will do this politely and unobtrusively, but they will do it nonetheless. This is their nature, and calling on them to have more “enlightened” attitudes toward the way women present themselves is like King Canute calling on the tide to recede. The potential is huge for distraction from what a female lawyer may be trying to accomplish in a courtroom.

And really, lady lawyers, it’s not about you. It’s about the clients you represent. It’s about life and death, guilt and innocence, people claiming rights that they say other people have trampled on. A courtroom isn’t a forum for personal self-expression. Courtrooms are places where the utmost seriousness and decorum are required, because the stakes are so high. If you’re trying to win your case -- and that’s what you owe your clients -- it behooves you to look as dignified and professional as possible, so that the men in the courtroom really won’t be paying more attention to your breasts and your legs than what is coming out of your mouth. Because believe me, that’s what they’ll be doing if you insist on showing them off.


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Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.