“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”- Virginia Woolf
Clothing defines us. It marks us. It deceives us. In “January: A Woman Judge’s Season of Disillusion” by the Honourable Marie Corbett, she discusses the process of robing, and it’s transformative power.
“…—attire that served to advertise the social, professional, or intellectual standing of the wearer like “labels in a grocer’s shop,” with every button, rosette, and stripe having significance. Woolf describes a judge chiding a woman litigant for imprudent dress while he himself is wearing a scarlet robe, an ermine cape, and a vast wig of artificial curls. He lectured the woman without any consciousness of sharing her “weakness.”
I finished garbing myself and glanced in the mirror. Woolf’s concept notwithstanding, there I was—in men’s clothes, ready to administer men’s laws.”
While reading January, the power of the judge’s uniform becomes increasingly apparent. The judicial robe strips judges of their individuality and marks them with power. All while separating them from their former lawyer peers, making judging an incredibly isolating process.
In January, you can sense the isolation that Corbett faces throughout her rigid, routine days. She describes dressing and undressing repeatedly throughout the day. Dressing to go to work. Dressing to appear in court. Dressing to go to lunch. Dressing to go back to court. Dressing to go home. A day of dressing and undressing. A day of small transformations. And after years of this routine, Corbett no longer thought of her role as searching for the truth. Instead, she describes herself as “the impartial referee, the decider of facts on the evidence that the lawyers brought before me. No, not a search for truth.”
Judges only know what lawyers present. They are tied to the strength of their skills. They cannot research the facts on their own. She describes moments of bad lawyering before her, futile cross-examinations, poor opening arguments, tedious presentations of evidence.
“University Avenue gave me time to think about the hospital, where the ill and the injured sought health and recovery, and the courthouse, where the wronged and the accused sought justice and truth. Two hives of dis-ease: one physical, the other social. I was moving from one pathological environment to the other: from doctors to lawyers—from white to black—from cancer to crime.”
January is an incredible book. It provides an opening into the minutia of judging, humanizing the people behind the judicial garb.