This month, 27 new judges have been sworn into state courts all across California. The newly elected jurists raised their right hand, were given assignments to courtrooms, and — for the first time — donned their robes. But where do the robes come from? Turns out, my dad had the answer.
After over 30 years working as a prosecutor in Orange County, my dad got a new job. It took years of planning, fundraising, the occasional family fight and dozens of community meetings, but on June 3, 2014, Jeffrey Malcolm Ferguson was elected a superior court judge in Orange County, California.
"I was getting close to retiring, but I'm not prepared to retire," he said. "And the law has been my life, so I decided one of the most interesting things would be to become a judge, and take a different seat in the same courtroom that I've spent the last 31 years in."
At 64, my Dad became the first person in my family to run and get elected to public office.
And when you're elected judge, the state doesn't just hand you a courtroom and a gavel. There are orientations and classes (most of them in San Francisco), ceremonies and financial affairs to get in order.
And then there's the robe — a custom-made, $324 garment paid for out of pocket. Judges buy one robe at a time, generally, and the measurement details get more specific than you might think. I met my dad a few weeks ago when he was being fitted for the robe at home.
"These little factors, actually make a difference in the comfort level," he said. "You're not just standing in it, you're sitting in it all day. And you're sweeping your arms around the bench — gesticulating, I imagine."
Like most local judges' robes, my dad's came from Academic Apparel in Chatsworth. They do robes of all kinds: judicial robes, choir robes and, like the name implies, graduation robes. The company has contracts with about a third of LAUSD schools.
Academic is the only business of its kind in Los Angeles. It employs a little over two dozen people and has been in business for almost 70 years. Evelyn Cronan co-owns Academic. She said my dad's robe might look a little like the one I wore at graduation — but there's a world of difference between the two.
Whereas most graduation gowns come to Academic from China, the Cronan family makes their judicial robes from scratch. It starts out as a giant sheet of plain back fabric that gets measured, cut, sewn, pleated and measured — over and over again until it looks perfect. The process takes an entire day.
Academic manufactures robes for judges all over the place — all sizes, shapes and even colors. Judges sometimes order pink, purple and green robes, where those kinds of robes are allowed.
Special requests usually aren't a problem: extra pockets, a gun holster... a magician once asked for a rabbit pocket. "That was probably the most unusual, a rabbit," said Cronan. "How big does an opening have to be for a rabbit?"
A bulletproof vest company once approached Academic about making bulletproof judges robes — none have been made, but Academic remains interested.
They've designed robes for Judge Judy (she's ordered about 10), almost every other TV judge, and remember the OJ Simpson trial? Judge Lance Ito wore an Academic robe — almost giving the company its big break on a major network TV show.
"When they had the trial, the OJ trial, they were looking for stories on anything they could. So they were gonna do a story on Judge Ito's robe," said Cronan. "They came in here and filmed everything and interviewed us, filmed everything — it would've been our big moment on television except that the jury came in!"
And what about the final product? My dad says it was well worth the money spent.
"The robe fits great. The measurements were great," he said. "When I put on the robe, I haven't noticed any change in my personality, yet."