Will Elena Kagan Have To Wear a Frilly Neckpiece?

Plus, what kind of orientation do Supreme Court justices get?

Photo illustration: What Elena Kagan would look like in ruffles. Click image to expand.
Photo illustration: What Elena Kagan would look like in ruffles

The Senate confirmed Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan by a vote of 63-37 on Thursday. Her ascent as the fourth woman ever to serve on the high court raises a couple of questions, answered herewith.

Kagan’s swearing-in ceremony and first day on the job will be Saturday. What kind of orientation does a new Supreme Court justice receive?
A sit-down with the junior justice, a couple of tours, and a welcome dinner. Traditionally, the most recent addition to the Supreme Court—Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in this case—takes responsibility for orienting the rookie. Justice Sotomayor will explain Kagan’s duties and help her with the transition. She will also take Kagan on a meet-and-greet so she knows important staff members. A representative of the Office of the Court Curator will take Kagan on a separate tour to teach her all about the history of the 75-year-old building.

Elena Kagan won’t necessarily move into the office of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. His office will be offered to each of the sitting justices in order of seniority. So Kagan might end up in the smallest office in the building.

In the coming weeks, the sitting justices will hold a welcome dinner. They usually bring spouses, but Sotomayor and Kagan, who are both unmarried, will likely go stag.

As the fourth woman to serve on the Supreme Court, Kagan faces a difficult choice: whether to wear some variant of the frilly neckpiece—often called a jabot—that Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have sported. Where did that thing come from?
Merry olde England. U.S. Federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, can wear pretty much anything they like—they can even go in jeans and t-shirts—but the simple black robe has been de rigueur for those on the federal bench since the early 19th century. (Some state courts continue to wear variations, like red robes on the Maryland Court of Appeals and gray for the justices of the Georgia Supreme Court.) The V-neck on a standard judicial gown hangs a little low, which isn’t a problem for men, since it exposes their shirt-collar and necktie. Women’s wear doesn’t have a consistent neckline, so many female judges seek some kind of neck adornment to cover the gap. Some of them look to England, where male and female judges alike still wear a two-banded ribbon atop their robes. The accessory is still au courant in several former English colonies, like Canada and Zimbabwe, as well.

Not all female judges take this route. Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Wood, whom President Obama also considered for the Supreme Court, often prefers a brooch to going all frilly. Another option is simply to adjust your personal attire to accommodate the robe’s plunging neckline and skip the accessorizing altogether. Judge Kimba Wood of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, for example, tends to wear a crew neck under her gown. *  Justice Sonia Sotomayor also prefers an unadorned judicial robe with a higher collar underneath. She received a jabot as a gift from Justice Ginsburg, but doesn’t usually wear it during oral argument. (No word yet on who will gift Kagan with a jabot, or whether she will wear it.)

Some judges, like Kim McLane Wardlaw of the Ninth Circuit, close the robe’s neckline completely, eliminating the need for an accessory. While judges typically order their polyester garments from online retailers—high-end versions cost around $400—Wardlaw had a Hollywood designer create her unique robes.

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Explainer thanks Kathy Arberg of the U.S. Supreme Court Public Information Office.

Correction, Aug. 9, 2010: This article originally stated that Judge Kimba Wood sits on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. (Return to the corrected sentence.) Like  Slate and the Explainer on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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