Forget Dylan: Lawyers and Judges Using Contemporary Song Lyrics


The new face of jurisprudence?

Reports that Bob Dylan’s song lyrics are the most quoted in judicial opinions and briefs have inspired a new generation of lawyers and judges to broaden the law’s lyrical oeuvre with their own selections –to varying results.

Charles Grant, professor of law at Baylor University, studied the phenomenon since its outbreak and sees an opening of the floodgates: “While it’s true that, in the past, judges and lawyers have quoted song lyrics to make points and add levity to otherwise dry writing, something about the announcement of Dylan’s status [as the most quoted] sparked an unknown, untapped passion in many legal professionals.”

Within a week of the Dylan report, over half the decisions rendered at the state and federal level include song lyrics. These selections range from contemporary choices like Brittney Spears and Radiohead to classical pieces like Johann Strauss’ opera, “Die Fledermaus”.

“What was particularly striking about the Die Fledermaus case,” noted Grant, “was the judge didn’t translate the original German lyrics despite using it for the crux of his decision.”  The case, U.S. v Granger, is a capital murder trial currently on appeal. Given variations in translation, both sides dispute exactly what is being appealed.

Some judges select lyrics that express their personality.  Arizona Superior Court Judge Emma Stuart earned admiration from her peers and music fans alike by using Beyoncé’s ”Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” to rule against a party in case involving common law marriage.  (The state does not recognize such marriages.)

Judge Seth Jenkins of the State Court of Fulton County, Georgia, recently sentenced a repeat criminal offender using lyrics from M.C. Hammer’s 1990 hit, “U Can’t Touch This”.  The decision read, in part: ”The Defendant showed no remorse for his continuing criminality [. . .] clearly he must believe we can’t touch this. [. . .] Well, to this sort of mindset, the Court can only say ‘Stop… Hammer time!’”  The defendant in the case was sentences to 125 years without the possibility of parole.

Clerks for recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor confided that the Justice asked them to find a way to work in some of her own favorite choices.  One clerk, who asked to remain unnamed citing unofficial policy, revealed that Sotomayor’s favorite band is Rage Against the Machine.

“It’s been rather difficult to handle proper analysis of the proper mode of judicial review when every few minutes [Justice Sotomayor] pops her head in to ask whether or not we’ve added a few lines from ‘Bulls on Parade’.”  The exasperated clerk added, “She’s given us a deadline to use at least two full lines from two separate songs, excluding covers, and we have to end one of her opinions with ‘It has to start somewhere it has to start somewhere.  It has to start sometime.  What better place than here?  What better time than now?  All hell can’t stop us now!’”

The uses are not just limited to written opinions.  During oral arguments before a panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Judges Deborah Kent, Randall Spiro and Jeff Rosen expressed their outward neutrality on an issue by alternating lines from a popular Lady Gaga hit:

Judge Kent: “Can’t read my, can’t read my, no he can’t read my poker face”

Judge Spiro: “She’s got to love nobody.”

Judge Rosen: ”P-p-p-poker face, p-p-poker face.”

Still, when it comes filing briefs, lawyers should tread carefully as not to offend the taste (and possibly sway the opinion) of the presiding judge.  A Nebraska attorney was found in contempt for sprinkling her brief with the works of Justin Bieber.

Judge William Saxon of the U.S. District Court of Vermont  recalled a brief that he nearly dismissed outright. “The brief included the unholy trifecta of ‘let the bodies hit the floor’, ‘down with the sickness’ and ‘crawling in my skin these wounds they will not heal,’” recalled Saxon, cringing, “All the brief was missing was a popped collar and a pair of truck nuts to complete the portrait of a legal asshole.”

Despite these hiccups, the bonanza shows no sign of slowing down. A recent study by Brooklyn Law School professor Harvey Billups has noted the emergence of sub-trends, like the hipster legal lyricist: “Several opinions and briefs, particularly by members of the judiciary operating out of locations such as Williamsburg here in Brooklyn, have made references to bands they believe the court hasn’t heard about,” adding “ugh…they’re so pretentious.” 

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