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Thursday, September 30, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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No Skirting The Issue In This Courtroom

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

There is surprise on all sides in the aftermath of King County Superior Court Judge Jeanette Burrage telling two women attorneys this week that pantsuits are inappropriate dress for women in her courtroom.

Burrage, a judge at the Regional Justice Center in Kent, said she was surprised that her comments Tuesday to Cindy Arends, a public defender, and Page Ulrey, a King County deputy prosecutor, have caused such a flap.

Saying that it's "nothing that hasn't happened before," Burrage said that on two or three other occasions during her four years as a judge she has informed women attorneys they should wear skirts, not pants in her courtroom.

"To me, professional dress includes skirts for women," Burrage said. Pantsuits, she feels, have a tendency to demean the court.

Arends, too, was surprised by the judge's request. "I've been in practice for six years and I've never heard of this . . . I think its gender biased."

Arends told Burrage then that, if possible, she would avoid appearing in her court.

Ulrey would not talk to reporters, but Dan Donohoe, spokesman for the King County Prosecutor's office, said Burrage's admonishment "came as a surprise to both her (Ulrey) and the defense attorney."

Pantsuits are perfectly acceptable courtroom attire according to the dress code for attorneys working as deputies for the prosecutor's office, Donohoe said.

Fred Noland, first vice president of the King County Bar Association, said the only regulation that touches on clothing is a broad stipulation that attorneys "dress and act respectfully before the court."

However, a judge has broad discretion, Noland said. "Given the traditional breath of discretion (of a judge) it may be permissible legally. He noted that approximately 40 percent of the attorneys practicing in King County are women.

Pantsuits are acceptable in King County Juvenile Court. Laura Inveen, the presiding judge for Juvenile Court, recently established clothing guidelines which spell out that pantsuits specifically are acceptable for women attorneys.

Nancy Sapiro of the Northwest Women's Law Center, said she is "shocked that this is an issue we're dealing with in this day and age. When someone told me about it, I thought it was a joke," she said.

"It seems to me that you should be discussing more substantive issues than what we wear around our bodies in the courtroom," Sapiro said.

It is the first time Sapiro or Donohoe have heard of a judge complaining about what women wear in a courtroom.

Burrage says she may well do the same thing next time, but because of "all this excitement" she expects to talk it over with other judges and "reflect on it."

Burrage made the comments to both attorneys during a break in a one-day trial at the Regional Justice Center. They both objected, saying they had not been required to do this in other courtrooms, Burrage said.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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