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Federal judge says women attorneys should tone down dress in court

A federal judge in Nebraska who has stirred up a hornet's nest for suggesting that young women attorneys need to dress more conservatively in court has the support of one woman who holds his judicial career in her hands: Chief U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp.

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf weighed in Tuesday on the topic of young women and how they dress for court on his online blog, "Hercules and the Umpire."

As a senior judge, Kopf is semiretired, taking cases assigned him. A chief judge unhappy with a senior judge's behavior could simply stop assigning him cases. That's not going to happen in Kopf's case, Smith Camp said Wednesday.

"He is not sexist, and he is not a dirty old man," Smith Camp said.

The blog itself is unusual for a federal judge. In it, Kopf has posted everything from videos of his grandkids to opinions on various court cases, and once told Congress to "go to hell" for allowing a brief federal government shutdown last year. He had declared in late December that he was shutting down the blog but spontaneously resumed earlier this month, posting about his battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma, the legalization of medical marijuana and the death of anti-gay pastor Fred Phelps Sr.

But it was his post Tuesday, which he titled "On being a dirty old man and how young women lawyers dress," that has created the blog's most controversy to date.

In it, Kopf relaying a story about a local female attorney in her late 20s whom he describes as brilliant, eloquently, zealous, always prepared and having respect for her courtroom opponents. She also "wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest," Kopf wrote. "I especially appreciate the last two attributes."

Kopf goes on to offer "rules" for young women attorneys in dressing for court, including, "You can't win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it."

Comments on the judge's blog run the gamut from support to those calling him sexist. Kopf apologized on the blog to those he offended and noted that the young female attorney referenced in his blog was an amalgam of more than one person and more than one event.

Kopf declined to comment for The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Others had plenty to say.

"Women have it a million times harder than men when it comes to presenting themselves professionally," said Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a Boston attorney and author of "Ending the Gauntlet: Removing the Barriers to Women's Success in the Law," who also consults and speaks on gender issues. "Women get mixed messages all the time. Don't dress provocatively. Don't look dowdy. This blog just perpetuated that double standard."

Brenda Beadle, the chief deputy prosecutor for Douglas County — Nebraska's largest — said she was shocked by the judge's remarks.

"It's not that I disagreed with what he said. Certainly both men and women can sometimes dress inappropriately for court," Beadle said. "But I took issue with the objectifying of women and commenting about his personal thoughts about women. I just thought it was distasteful and inappropriate."

Smith Camp, the chief judge, said Wednesday that Kopf's blog provokes conversation, although "he has said some things that I would not say." She also confirmed that she submitted her own written comment to Kopf's blog post Tuesday, recalling that as a young attorney, she wore suits several sizes too big so as not to draw attention to herself.

"It's unfortunate, but there truly are judges who don't hear a word a female lawyer says in oral argument until the judge has evaluated and digested her appearance," Smith Camp wrote, noting the she advises young female attorneys to "dress in a way that no one will remember what they wore."

Tammy King, assistant dean for career development at Creighton University's Law School, organizes a "dress for success" program every year for Creighton law students to encourage conservative, appropriate dress for the courtroom.

She took exception to Kopf's singling out women for inappropriate dress in court, but added, "the topic of professionalism is something that should be discussed. Both men and women can make the mistake of inappropriate dress in court."

It's probably a bad idea for a judge to have a public opinion blog, said Paul D. Carrington, professor of law at Duke University.

"I might very well encourage the judge to give it up," Carrington said. "They do seem to be a device for saying things that maybe shouldn't be said."

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