Bob Dylan’s Words, Enshrined In The Nation’s Case Law

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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Bob Dylan can claim many titles — poet, lyricist, artist — now, Nobel laureate.

He also might be styled a jurist.

The wrasping, disheveled, mysteriously enigmatic soloist is far and away the most-cited musician in judicial opinions, according to a 2011 study by Alex Long called “The Freewheelin’ Judiciary: A Bob Dylan Anthology.” Long, then a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, notes Dylan had been quoted twice in opinions at the U.S. Supreme Court, and is cited dozens of times annually in the federal courts.

Dylan’s first appearance on the Supreme Court record came by way of a dissent from Chief Justice John Roberts in 2008 in Spirit Communications Co. v. APCC Services. Breaking from a five-justice majority, Roberts argued that collections firms used by payphone operators did not have standing to sue a long-distance carrier to collect compensation for so-called “coinless calls” because they could not benefit from the judgement which would ensue. For a person or entity to have standing, their injury must be redressable, as, to the chief’s thinking, was not the case here. He pithily summarized the crux of his argument with a line from Dylan’s 1965 track “Like A Rolling Stone”: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

“Bob Dylan captured the whole notion behind standing,” Roberts said of his Dylan citation earlier this year, according to Adam Liptak at The New York Times. “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.”

Dylan again appeared in a dissent, this time from the late Justice Antonin Scalia, in 2010. “The-times-they-are-a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty,” he wrote of the majority’s refusal to take up certain questions in the case because of the rapid pace of technological change. (RELATED: The New Republic Was Certain Bob Dylan Wouldn’t Win The Nobel Prize)

In some instances Dylan citations haven’t merely lent piquancy to an otherwise dry matter of law. In California, one might argue the courts have created something of a “Dylan standard” when assessing whether to permit expert testimony during a trial. The state courts have determined that expert testimony during trial is not necessary where the question may be resolved by common knowledge. The issue was addressed in Jorgensen v. Beach ‘N’ Bay Realty, Inc.:

The correct rule on the necessity of expert testimony has been summarized by Bob Dylan: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” The California courts, although in harmony, express the rule somewhat less colorfully and hold expert testimony is not required where a question is “resolvable by common knowledge.”

“Since then, courts in California have cited these lyrics for the same proposition on numerous occasions to the point that the language from Jorgensen is almost boilerplate on the subject of the necessity of expert testimony,” Long wrote. He also notes Dylan’s weatherman has been invoked by judges with respect to obvious conclusions or the probability of future events. Subterranean Homesick Blues, the song from which the line comes, is the most commonly cited Dylan song according to his tally.

Esteem for Dylan among federal jurists may reflect a generational shift. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a opera devotee who joined the high court in 1972, preferred to quote Gilbert and Sullivan.

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