The judicial fashion statement of the Chief Justice wearing four gold stripes on his sleeves, while the sleeves of associate justices are unadorned, is a lot more recent than his official title, which, as Frederic Schwarz points out, dates to late in the nineteenth century. In fact it only dates to the middle of the late Chief Justice Rehnquist’s term, after he saw a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe.
One of the major characters in the operetta is the Lord Chancellor, a powerful position in the British government. He presides over the House of Lords, is the head of the judiciary, and sits in the cabinet. As Gilbert explains in the Lord Chancellor‘s opening song:
The Law is the true embodiment
Of everything that’s excellent.
It has no kind of fault or flaw,
And I, my lords, embody the law.
The Lord Chancellor’s elaborate official robes positively drip with gold, and Rehnquist—a Gilbert and Sullivan fan (as am I)—promptly had a scaled-down version, suitable to a republic, made up for himself.
I was hoping that one of the senators at the recent hearings in the Judiciary Committee would ask Judge Roberts if he intended to continue wearing gold stripes on his sleeves if confirmed for Chief Justice. It would have been a perfect opportunity for him to say that here, certainly, was a case where the doctrine of stare decisis should be faithfully followed.
Since no senator asked the question, I guess we will have to wait for October 3 to see what Chief Justice Roberts is wearing when he steps from behind the curtain.