Justice Brightens Basic Court Black

January 18, 1995|By Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Any change in tradition, even a small one, sends reverberations down the marble hallways of the Supreme Court. Yesterday, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist stunned the whole place, showing up in a black robe with brilliant gold stripes on each sleeve.

For generations, Supreme Court justices have worn plain black robes -- a visible sign of their fierce neutrality.

The chief justice, often dour in his public appearances, showed no emotion as he took the bench in his new finery.

Asked about it by a court aide, Justice Rehnquist sent word that he personally designed the new adornment -- four 1-inch-wide horizontal stripes per sleeve, midway between shoulder and elbow.

He got the idea, he said, by watching the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera "Iolanthe." A British lord chancellor is decorated that way, Justice Rehnquist said.

The change, the chief justice said through the aide, "very likely will be permanent."

Justice Rehnquist has dared to break the fashion mold before.

Some years ago, for a formal public appearance in an outdoor setting, he donned a small pillbox hat, pitch-black. That, however, was not an original. In the court's early days, that covering was the accepted style.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor followed his lead that time, wearing a pillbox herself.

But in this case, no one has the rank to match his golden stripes.

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