Why the Judges Wear Red

The German Federal Constitutional Court (FCC) (Bundesverfassungsgericht) have decided that Gerhard Schroeder’s decision to call for and lose a no-confidence vote was within his "margin of appreciation," to put it vaguely European-ly, and therefore that the new elections scheduled for Sept. 18th can take place.  No big surprise.

Here’s a picture of some members of the Court, similar to many that have been flickering on many TV screens lately.  I am now going to answer a question some of you might have been asking yourselves: why the bright-red judicial robes and hats?

The answer comes from page 80 of Der Gang nach Karlsruhe ("The Route to Karlsruhe," the city in which the Court is located), a recent popular history of this fascinating Court by the German legal journalist Uwe Wesel.  I turn to this book whenever the official treatises on the Federal Constitutional Court were too turgid, abstract, and boring, which was very frequent. 

Wesel discusses not only the major decisions and doctrines of the FCC, but also the personalities on and around the court and the political context in which it operates.  What’s more, he does so in crisp, lively, tangy prose.  On page 80 he describes how the Justices chose their robes.  By the early 1960s, The judges of the FCC, Wesel writes (in my informal translation),

no longer wanted to wear the same robes as their colleagues [on Germany’s other high courts].  They formed a Robe Committee, and had a theater director from Munich visit, carrying a thick book full of colorful costumes.  From this book they chose the most fitting costume.  They were the robes worn by the highest judges of Florence in the 15th or 16th century.  Thus we have the red robes with white band and red cap.

I know, it’s utterly useless trivia.  But still good to know, no?

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