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Poetic Justice

July 13, 2017 by pgd1

Bob Dylan’s pointed and versatile lyrics are cited in judicial opinions and have earned him a Nobel Prize for literature.

The late Justice Antonin Scalia loved opera, but he also had a soft spot for Bob Dylan.  In a 2010 dissent, for instance, he chastised the majority for refusing to answer key questions in a case about sexually explicit text messages because technology was evolving so fast.

“‘The-times-they-are-a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty,” he wrote.

Justice Scalia was in good company.  Mr. Dylan has long been the most cited songwriter in judicial opinions, says Alex B. Long, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and the author of a 2012 study, “The Freewheelin’ Judiciary: A Bob Dylan Anthology,” published in the Fordham Urban Law Journal.1

It was a 2008 dissent from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., that really opened the floodgates, Professor Long says. “Judges’ inclination to go to Dylan has actually increased in the past few years, probably as a result of Roberts’ dissent in that case,” he said.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Roberts quoted Dylan as follows:  “When you got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

In an interview of the Chief Justice on Feb. 3 2016, Dean John F. O’Brien of New England Law, Boston, probed the matter, starting with a general question. “What was your objective in quoting Bob Dylan?” Chief Justice Roberts, a little defensively, said there was a place for a bit of levity and license in legal writing. “An intelligent layperson appreciates Bob Dylan’s poetry, if not his music,” he said. “It was, after all, in a dissent, so you have a little bit more leeway there.”

“Bob Dylan captured the whole notion behind standing,” he added. “In that case, the party didn’t have anything at stake in the case and had nothing to lose, and the case should have been thrown out on that basis.”

Legal writing forms a unique aspect of literature that is enriched by the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

by Patrick Gaffney

by Patrick Gaffney


1 This blog was taken, in part, from the writings of Adam Liptak, including “How Does It Feel, Chief Justice Roberts, to Hone a Dylan Quote?”  The New York Times.  February 22, 2016.

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