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Bob Dylan: Laureate, lyrics and the law

By

“Life is more or less a lie, but then again,

That’s exactly the way we want it to be.”

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan will be a no-show in Stockholm for the presentation of his Nobel Prize for Literature. The enigmatic, 75-year-old troubadour, born in Duluth and raised in Hibbing, has kept his customary low profile ever since the announcement in October of the honor, which is to be formally bestowed at a high-profile ceremony in the Swedish capital on Saturday, Dec. 10.

But even though he has announced that he will not appear due to “pre-existing commitments,” Dylan’s presence will continue to be felt in another forum that is unconventional for him: the courtrooms of this country. His lyrics have often found their way into judicial rulings form coast-to-coast and at the highest echelon of all, the United States Supreme Court.

According to a study nearly a decade ago by a University of Tennessee law professor,  the work of Minnesota’s latest Nobel Laureate has been relied upon in court rulings close to 200 times, Alex Long, “[Insert Song Lyrics Here]: The Uses and Misuses of Popular Musical Lyrics in Legal Writing,” Washington & Lee Law Review,  (2007).  Accordingly, the academic review is noteworthy because it shows how popular culture has seeped into the law.  Citation to Dylan occurs twice as often  as the nearest lyrical competitor, the Beatles, and at least four times more  frequently than also-rans such as The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, Simon and Garfunkel, and a host of other musical luminaries.

Despite the judicial proclivity to cite Dylan’s music, no Minnesota Supreme Court or appellate court ruling is known to have done so – yet.

Roberts’ reasoning

The penchant of judges for quoting from Dylan’s music to bolster the reasoning underlying their  legal ruling goes back a long way, but it was accelerated eight years ago by John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Dissenting from the decision of his colleagues allowing a   rather mundane debt collection lawsuit to proceed, he opined that the claimant did not have standing to bring the lawsuit. To embellish his point, he remarked about the claimant’s posture of not having any down-side to litigation the case, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose,” quoting slightly inaccurately from Dylan’s 1966 breakthrough song “Like a Rolling Stone.”

His reference drew some flak. Grammarians noted that the Chief Justice cleaned up Dylan’s language a bit, which actually included the phrase “ain’t got nothing to lose.”   Some legal purists were offended that the quotation demeaned the sanctity of the judicial process.

Imagine their apoplexy a couple of years later when Justice Antonin Scalia, a noted opera buff no less, quoted from the title song of Dylan’s 1964 album  in objecting to the failure by his fellow jurists to rule upon the privacy issues raised in a California case, Quant v. City of Ontario, 560 U.S. 746 (2010).  The case upheld discipline of police officers for using employer-provided electronic devices for unofficial, personal purposes. While concurring, the court, he wrote, was remiss in not addressing the contemporary privacy-technology concerns lurking in the case because “the times, they are a-changin.”

 Court cues

Other courts have taken the cues, looking to Dylan for both guidance in making decisions and explaining them to litigants, their lawyers, and the public at large.  In Los Angeles United School Dist. v. Superior Court, 228 Cal. App. 4th 222 (2014), the California appellate court, eschewing the need for expert witnesses in a case that could easily be decided by ordinary lay jurors without special expertise quoted from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”“: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Addressing the civil rights case before it, the court went on to cite Dylan’s ”Times Are a-Changing” anthem from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, “Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.”

In Seattle, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik also invoked Dylan’s “times are a-changin” motif in a couple of rulings.  One held that excluding contraceptives from an employer’s prescription drug health insurance plan violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.  Erickson v. Bartell Drug Company, 141 F. Supp. 2d 1266 (D. Wash. 2008).  The same jurist, in Rivera v. Holden, Case No. C14-1597 RSL (D. Wash. 2015), barred the indefinite detention of undocumented immigrants.  Expressing empathy with the detainees, the judge cited the lamentation from Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” about “the luckless, the abandoned and forsaken.”

Across the continent, a New York City judge quoted the title of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” yes, he used the “ain’t” word, to describe the unpersuasive claim in a class action for wrongful toll bridge charges in Kinkopf v. Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority, NY Civil Court (2003), in which the class plaintiff alleged he was not driving a car over a bridge for which a toll was charged to him.

Down the East Coast, a federal jurist in Florida in Procaps S.A. v. Pantheon, Inc.,  2012 CV 24356 (S.D. Fla. 2015) justified his refusal to accept a litigant’s invitation in an anti-trust case that he depart from established legal precedent, explaining his fidelity to existing case law.  The jurist quoted Dylan’s acknowledgement that “you’re gonna have to serve somebody” from his “Gotta Serve Somebody” song.

Minnesota matters

These are but a few of the myriad of melodic musings that jurists have borrowed from Minnesota’s laureate musician.  Now that he has achieved such unprecedented honor as the first musical artist to reach the Nobel Literature pinnacle the homage is likely to escalate.

But the law is not the only learned profession in which Dylan has left his mark.  The drop-out from the University of Minnesota has been cited even more often, some 213 times at last count, in scholarly medical papers.

PERSPECTIVES POINTERS

Some Of Dylan’s Other Awards

  • Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (1988);
  • Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1991);
  • Academy Award Oscar (2001);
  • Pulitzer Prize (2008);
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012).

 

As published in Minnesota Lawyer.