Justice may be blind, but she needs to see your face
Freedom of religion is an important value in this country. Unless you’re testifying in a court in Michigan. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled yesterday that judges’ authority over witness dress in the courtroom extends to asking that face veils be removed.
Anyone who has seen My Cousin Vinny knows that judges have the right to instruct lawyers and witnesses as to proper attire in the court. Judges might exercise that right when Joe Pesci waltzes into the courtroom wearing a leather jacket or blue tux. Or more commonly, when witnesses are wearing clothing that might intimidate the jury or others testifying, e.g., a shirt saying, “Find me guilty and I’ll find you after this trial is over.” They would also object to someone wearing a ball cap drawn down too far, obscuring someone’s eyes, or a face mask. You need to be able to see the face of someone testifying to be able to help judge their truthfulness.
That was the thinking for the Michigan judge who prompted the state Supreme Court’s ruling. Back in 2006, Ginnah Muhammad sued Enterprise Car Company after she was charged $3,000. She claimed that thieves broke into the car and caused the damages. Having dealt with unfair charges levied by rental companies many times, I’m quite sympathetic.
But Muhammad never had the chance to argue her case. When she went to court to testify, she and the judge began squabbling over her niqab. Here’s the transcript of their conversation:
THE COURT: You need to stand over there. Ms. Muhammad, did my court officer talk with you about taking your veil off?
[MUHAMMAD]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: Okay, and what is your suggestion or what are your thoughts on that?
[MUHAMMAD]: I said, “No, I can’t.”
THE COURT: Well, let me explain to you why I think you have to do it and then you tell me why you don’t have to do it and then we’ll try and make a decision as to how to proceed.
[MUHAMMAD]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: One of the things that I need to do as I am listening to testimony is I need to see your face and I need to see what’s going on and unless you take that off, I can’t see your face and I can’t tell whether you’re telling me the truth or not and I can’t see certain things about your demeanor and temperament that I need to see in a court of law, okay, so you tell me why is it that you don’t want to take your veil off.
[MUHAMMAD]: Well, first of all, I’m a practicing Muslim and this is my way of life and I believe in the Holy Koran and God is first in my life. I don’t have a problem with taking my veil off if it’s a female judge, so I want to know do you have a female that I could be in front of then I have no problem but otherwise, I can’t follow that order.
THE COURT: Okay. Well, no, I don’t have a female judge. I’m the Judge that’s here, okay, and second of all and I mean no disrespect to your religion, but wearing a veil I don’t think is a religious thing -
[MUHAMMAD]: Well, that’s your preference, sir.
THE COURT: — I think it’s a custom thing and -
[MUHAMMAD]: That’s your preference.
THE COURT: First of all, hold on. Hold on. It’s not my preference. I have no clue about any of this information, okay –
[MUHAMMAD]: That’s what I’m saying.
THE COURT: — but this has come up in my courtroom before, and in my courtroom before I have asked practicing Muslims and the practicing Muslims have told me that, “No, Judge, what I wear on top of my head is a religious thing and what I wear across my face is a non-religious thing. It’s a custom thing.”
[MUHAMMAD]: Well, that’s not correct.
THE COURT: Well, this is what they have told me and so that’s the way that I am running my courtroom and that’s how I have to proceed.
[MUHAMMAD]: And I respect you, Your Honor, and –
THE COURT: Fantastic.
[MUHAMMAD]: — I would like to ask for a change of venue.
THE COURT: Well, you can’t have a change of venue. You’re the one who decided to file the lawsuit, okay –
[MUHAMMAD]: Yes, sir.
THE COURT: — and so that’s where we are today. So you have a couple of options today as far as I am concerned. You can either take it off and you can give me the testimony and after the hearing is all done and over with and if you want to put it back on, I don’t have any problems with that but if, in fact, you do not wish to do it, then I cannot go forward with your case and I have to dismiss your case.
[MUHAMMAD]: Thank you, sir. You have a great day.
THE COURT: Okay. Well, first of all tell me what you wish to do.
[MUHAMMAD]: I wish to respect my religion and so I will not take off my clothes.
THE COURT: Well, it’s not taking off your clothes. All I am trying to do is ask you to take off the part that’s covering your face so I can see your face and I can hear you and listen to you when you testify, and then you can put the veil back on. That’s all I am asking to do, ma’am.
[MUHAMMAD]: Well, Your Honor, with all due respect, this is part of my clothes, so I can’t remove my clothing when I’m in court.
THE COURT: Okay.
[MUHAMMAD]: Thank you.
THE COURT: You’re welcome, ma’am. Okay. Enterprise, case is dismissed.
via Religion Law.
With the help of the ACLU, Muhammad sued Hamtramck District Judge Paul Paruk for dismissing her case. But the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that he was justified in asking her to remove her veil while testifying in the court. Judges have the right [PDF] to “exercise reasonable control over the mode and order of interrogating witnesses and presenting evidence.” The rules of the court specify judges make suggestions as to witnesses’ attire in order to:
(1) make the interrogation and presentation effective for the ascertainment of the truth,
(2) avoid needless consumption of time, and
(3) protect witnesses from harassment or undue embarrassment.
Hello? Number 3? Forcing a woman to violate her religious beliefs to testify would seem to qualify as harassment and embarrassment.
Muhammad asked for a female judge — that seems like a reasonable request given her religious beliefs. Of course, with a jury trial, Muslim women forced to remove their face veil while testifying would need to be judged by “12 angry women” rather than men. So that makes things a bit more complicated.
Do we really need to see someone’s face to judge their honesty? I think it certainly helps. But a person’s religious beliefs shouldn’t prevent his or her ability to navigate our judicial system. Justice seems to have a bag over its head in this ruling.