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Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Myth of Black Robes

A common belief is that John Marshall initiated the practice of Supreme Court Justices wearing black robes. The story goes that the Justices wore scarlet robes before 1801, but Marshall chose to wear a simple black robe. This was an expression of his modesty and an exercise of leadership, as the other Justices soon followed his example.

A new article in the Journal of Supreme Court History debunks this claim. (I cannot link to the article.) Matthew Hofstedt, the Associate Curator of the Court, proves to my satisfaction that some of the Justices did wear black robes before Marshall's arrival. Hofstedt reaches no conclusion about why all of the Justices eventually adopted black robes, but what seems clear is that Marshall was not the cause.

This finding is consistent with my own research. In 1799, Elizabeth Powel told Bushrod Washington that she was buying him a "black satin robe" that he could use. (Washington was appointed to the Court in December 1798). I had wondered about that until I heard of Hofstedt's paper, but now Powel's letter makes sense. Some Justices did wear black robes before Marshall's arrival.

Just another John Marshall myth.

Posted by Gerard Magliocca on June 10, 2021 at 04:16 PM | Permalink

Comments

A person can read the first page of the article here:

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jsch.12255

Posted by: Joe | Jun 10, 2021 8:46:53 PM

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