02/25/2013 09:43 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Clothes Do "Make the Client": What the Hell Was Jesse Jackson and His Legal Team Thinking?

The Feb. 21, 2013, New York Times coverage of the Jesse Jackson Jr. court appearance, "Jesse Jackson Jr. Pleads Guilty: 'I Lived Off My Campaign'" appeared below a large photo of the Jacksons entering the Washington, D.C., federal courthouse. In the photo Sandra Jackson is wearing a fur coat and carrying a Burberry designer bag. The penultimate paragraph in the accompanying story reports that documents released before the plea "showed how Mr. Jackson used his campaign money to buy items like fur capes... "

As a retired public defender after a career of 35 years, I was puzzled about two questions which the photo brought to mind: (1) how a handsomely paid and high-powered defense team could stand by while their client appeared in court wearing clothing so readily associated with the illegally diverted campaign funds; and (2) are the Jacksons so tone-deaf, clueless or headstrong as to wear to court items from their expensive wardrobes(possibly purchased with ill-gotten gains) no matter what their defense team might have counseled? Had Jackson appeared carrying a stuffed elk head (for which $7,000 in taxidermy fees were paid) or wearing one of the Michael Jackson fedoras he purchased with campaign funds, the political couple's lifestyle choices could not have been more graphically highlighted.

During my public defender career, I had to counsel clients on many occasions about what they should wear to court -- both for appearances before a judge and for appearances before juries. Such professional attention to wardrobe and appearance could present interesting challenges when working with clients from low income communities of color.

When told to dress well for a court appearance, African-American male clients all too often greeted me outside the courtroom door dressed resplendently in a lime green or deep purple suit, with shoes that matched, and sometimes a fedora that topped off the whole outfit. The suit was either appropriate for a nightclub or constituted what African Americans might call "Sunday go to meeting" clothing.

Female clients of all races would on occasion appear with tight-fitting pants and skirts; or blouses unbuttoned in some fashion that displayed a little too much cleavage. In the latter circumstances I would counsel a quick trip to the restroom to rearrange the blouse or ask that the skirt be pulled a little lower relative to the knee. For the males I would grin and bear it, and then suggest a different approach to dressing for future court appearances: pants and a collared shirt akin to what they might term "college boy" or Best Buy store manager apparel.

I was sad at times to have to give such advice to my male clients. I was telling them to put on appearances at odds with what and who they were -- for the purpose of making a pleasing impression on people who should be judging them on the evidence of their actions and not on the cut or color of their clothing.

But, my public defender clientele "got it" -- unlike Representative Jackson Jr. and his wife. My clients were trying as best they could to make a good impression. They just didn't know how to present themselves to an audience from a different background than theirs.

It was painful to me -- an African-American lawyer privileged enough to be familiar with the dress mores of the Caucasian middle class that sits on juries and on judicial benches -- to tell my clients that their efforts to show respect by dressing up in the one suit they owned or borrowed would only bring unwelcomed and disdainful appraisals from middle class Caucasian judges and juries. Their fashion sense and social skills were as walled off from the jurors and judges as were their homes and communities.

Of course, there is a more nuanced interpretation of the courthouse apparel of the Jacksons -- an interpretation as intentioned (or nefarious) as the advice I gave clients before court appearances.

News reports over the past months, as well as the Times article describing the plea, referred to the fact that "... Mr. Jackson took a medical leave from Congress and was treated for bipolar disorder." And, the National Institute of Mental Health lists "spending sprees and impulsive business investments" as symptoms for mental health professionals to consider when assessing or treating a person with bipolar disorder.

Perhaps, the defense team permitted the Jacksons to appear in clothing possibly acquired through the very criminal actions being adjudicated as one way of reinforcing how much their clients' judgment was skewed by the bipolar mental condition. The defense strategy for sentencing may be to demonstrate that Representative Jackson's actions were driven by a mental illness or compulsion associated with manic depression. If such a mental compulsion exists in Jackson's personality, what could better illustrate its power than refusing to leave in the closet items of ill-gotten gain -- even when not doing so may harm your case in the eyes of the judge?

Jackson's lawyer, Reid Weingarten, is a respected criminal defense lawyer and a frequent counselor to the rich and famous in political and financial circles who run afoul of the law. My criminal defense career was confined to a class of clients several steps down the social ladder from his. But no matter where the courthouse may be -- Washington, New York or Beverly Hills -- I feel quite comfortable in saying: No lawyer should ever let a client show up for court in a fur that costs more than the judges, jurors and courtroom attaches' salaries for several months.