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The wig jokes can stop now. William Prickett finally got the message that his fellow Delaware lawyers really, really, REALLY are against the one-man campaign he has been conducting behind the scenes to persuade them to wear robes when they appear before the state supreme court. Not wigs. Just robes. Supplied by the court if counsel doesn’t own one. To be worn on a voluntary basis at that. If as much as one lawyer balks, the robes would stay in the closet. “There are some so set in their ways they wouldn’t consider it on a voluntary basis,” Prickett grumbled. He considers the Bar conservative and unimaginative. Some of its members consider him — well, they consider him things they prefer not to see in print. After all, Prickett is regarded as a legal elder at Prickett Jones & Elliott in Wilmington, Del., and remains the Delaware State Bar Association’s only president (1974-1975) to be the son of a president, and this staid bar is nothing if not conscientious about civility. In other words, giggle but don’t guffaw when asked about the robes. Follow the example of William E. Manning, a partner in the Wilmington office of Klett Rooney Lieber & Schorling, who vamped, “It depends on the hemline. Nothing above the knee for me.” Prickett has been deadly serious about this robe thing for months now. Never mind that no other state does it. Never mind that the trend is going the other way with the Lord Chief Justice, the ranking judge in England and Wales, wondering whether the time has come for British jurists to simplify — by copying the plain robes of their American counterparts and losing the wigs. The tights, too. Prickett went so far as to write a supreme court draft rule — “the robe (a) is 3/4 length rather than full length, (b) is made of black material other than silk, (c) is plain without any ornamentation,” and so on. He also had a model robe made. A lot of lawyers hoped the idea would die quietly, before anyone had to do something to stop it, or it became a public curiosity through an account like this one. Prickett, however, wouldn’t give it up — not after it was dismissed last October at a dinner meeting for past Bar association presidents, and not even after the state supreme court itself harrumphed and suggested diplomatically that if it were to happen, it should come from the Bar. A BAR PROBLEM “The court was polite, as we are to everyone,” said Justice Randy J. Holland, who wound up as the liaison to the Bar association on the robes matter. “The court wasn’t advocating this but was certainly willing to listen to what was presented. But it should be a Bar initiative, if at all.” Shortly after Dennis L. Schrader became the president last month, the Bar association took the initiative to deal with the robes once and for all. Schrader, a Georgetown lawyer with Wilson Halbrook & Bayard, formed an “Attorneys’ Robe Committee.” He was on it, and so was Prickett. Prickett had his doubts but went along. “I think Dennis was probably against the idea, although he never said that, good soldier that he was,” Prickett said. Out of the 2,500 or so lawyers in Delaware, the committee decided to survey 180 of them who had appeared before the state supreme court during the last year. It sent out a form labeled, “Response to the Inquiry in Connection With the Voluntary Wearing of Attorneys’ Robes in the Delaware Supreme Court,” and asked the respondents to identify themselves and check one of the following: “I favor having the Bar suggest the voluntary wearing of robes in the Delaware Supreme Court.” “I do not favor the Bar suggesting the wearing of robes in the Delaware Supreme Court.” “I take no position on the matter.” The results were clear. It was the biggest sinking since the Titanic. As of last week, Schrader had received 133 returns: 79 percent opposed, 13 percent favorable, eight percent no opinion. “The Bar association has spoken,” Schrader said. Actually, the Bar association did more than speak. It also wrote letters — biting, indignant letters that it included with its survey forms. Some of those letters were obtained in various ways by the Delaware Law Weekly and their authorship confirmed with the writers. THE BAR REACTS Here is what former Attorney General Charles M. Oberly III, now a partner at Oberly & Jennings in Wilmington, had to say: “I honestly believed this was a joke when I received it. … In my nearly 30 years with the Delaware Bar, this may be the most ridiculous subject I ever addressed. Please note, I mean no disrespect to anyone who thinks this is a good idea, but I honestly am dumbfounded by the proposal.” Bruce M. Stargatt, a partner with Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor in Wilmington, also weighed in, saying: “When the suggestion was first made, a year or two ago, that lawyers be allowed to puff themselves up with fancy robes as they appear before the supreme court, it seemed to me to be a bad idea. It still does. One of the reasons we are not still a British colony was our founders’ distaste for the pomp epitomized by lawyers in wigs and gowns. We are a plain people. If Delaware’s lawyers forget that, and think we will better ourselves by dressing in costume, we will be the object of ridicule. More than that, the ridicule will be justifiable.” In defense of the robes, Prickett argued that wearing them would be egalitarian, lessen gender distinctions, and heighten the perception of the attorney as an officer of the court. Others, however, argued just the opposite. Women, for example, didn’t want to come to court looking like clones. “I did solicit views from the Women-in-the-Law Section,” said Claire M. DeMatteis, the section chairwoman who is counsel to U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. “Women attorneys preferred to be able to keep their originality in the courtroom.” William D. Johnston, a Young Conaway partner who is the Bar association’s president-elect, didn’t see the robes as egalitarian. “At a time we’re trying to promote diversity and the public trust, it sends absolutely the wrong message. It sends the message of a closed elitist society,” he said. Still, Prickett was not entirely alone wandering in his sartorial wilderness. Timothy J. Houseal, another Young Conaway partner, was on his side. “I might be considered a young dinosaur,” Houseal said, “but robes may send a message of tradition and dignity, particularly in a climate of increasing informality and casual dress. I’m running against the tide, but I’m not a big believer in casual dress. Plus, I wear a robe on Sunday in the choir.” Houseal also thought the robes might be an equalizer when young lawyers face off against the senior members of the Bar. Although he characterized these seasoned attorneys as “gray hairs,” Houseal was in no way willing to make the leap to equalize that. “I’m not going to wear a wig,” he said. As far as the Bar association is concerned, Schrader said it has done everything with the robe question that it intends to do. The survey was it. “I consider the matter closed,” Schrader said. “I’m not disappointed in the outcome — or surprised.”

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