You may be wondering to yourself, “Why does this matter? It’s just an old robe?”
And in that, you’d be right. It’s just an old robe. An old robe that belongs to some long dead man that you heard about in 8th grade U.S. history and maybe not ever again since. But to anyone with a historical eye, the importance is obvious. This is one of only three robes from before 1850 to still exist, and as far as the John Marshall Foundation knows, the only one of his. John Marshall was perhaps the most influential and well respected Justice in the history of the judiciary. With that knowledge, the legacy of this robe becomes apparent. Sitting in the old court chambers and riding circuit through North Carolina, Marshall used this robe to exact justice, defend democracy, and establish a system of governance that has persisted with little change to this day.
With the introduction of a simple black robe during his first session as Chief Justice, Marshall reshaped and reformed the pomp and circumstance that had been associated with the early judiciary. Eschewing the colorful and aristocratic accoutrements of his predecessors, Marshall demonstrated the “blind justice” of the court. Its legacy has persisted to the modern judiciary, with only one Justice having changed his attire in the entire 219 year history since Marshall’s term began.
The black robes of a justice have become so ingrained in the public consciousness that when a change was made, it made the national news. The Black Robe first introduced by Marshall created the image that everyone alive today associates with the Court system.
This change also mattered in the historical era. To many justices, the introduction of the black robe was simplistic, and impactful. It demonstrated their impartiality when it came to decisions of the body, and when they lost the red dressing and sashes showing their law schools, it projected the court as a unified body, free from partisan influences and only concerned with the constitutionality of the cases in front of them. That impact could not have changed the perception of the court more.
In the entire history of the United States, the Supreme Court has remained the highest rated of the three branches. The average citizen did not see the court as having a bias in one way or the other, and its only in modern times that such an accusation even gets made.
So yes, at the end of the day. It’s an old robe. But the story that the robe represents is one of truth, justice, and a never ending quest to protect the people of the United States.