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Bob Dylan Tops Beatles, Bruce Springsteen as by Far the Most-Cited in Court Opinions

Posted May 9, 2011 5:06 PM CDT
By Martha Neil and Debra Cassens Weiss

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Corrected: You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. But for the zing that citing the lyrics of a popular song can bring to a court opinion or a scholarly legal article, there's no one better than the author of that well-known line, Bob Dylan, a survey has determined.

Dylan—whose "weatherman" line has been cited in at least a half-dozen California appellate court rulings as an example of when expert testimony isn't needed—is the wordsmith of choice among judges and legal academics, the Los Angeles Times reported.

According to a 2007 content analysis by professor Alex Long of the University of Tennessee, the creator of "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin' " easily beat other hugely popular artists, such as the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen, as the most-cited. He had 186 references at one point that year, compared to 74 and 69, respectively, for the Beatles and Springsteen.

"Everyone wants to believe that the music they listen to says something about who they are," says Long, 41, whose research focuses on how political songwriting is used in the legal system.

"Being a judge is a pretty cloistered existence, having to crank out these opinions in isolation. Dylan was popular at the time they were coming of age and trying to figure out who they were," says Long of those who turn to popular song lyrics to make a legal point. "The chance to throw in a line from your favorite artist is tempting, a chance to let your freak flag fly."

Dylan has been quoted by two U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. quoted this line: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose,” from the song "Like a Rolling Stone." The chief justice omitted the word “ain’t” and used the grammatically correct version circulating on the Internet. He used the quote in a dissent that argued a collection company had no standing to sue on behalf of several pay phone providers because it had nothing to gain by the lawsuit.

Justice Antonin Scalia also referred to Bob Dylan in a concurrence in which he chided the court majority for discussing, but avoiding a ruling on, whether employees have an expectation of privacy in company email. " 'The times they are a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty,” he wrote.

Updated May 13 to correct the Los Angeles Times' error; Alex Long is from the University of Tennessee.

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