Supreme Court

Chief Justice Cites Bob Dylan, But Corrects the Grammar


The times they are a changin’.

The former chief justice, William H. Rehnquist, cited Gilbert & Sullivan in a 1980 case. His replacement, John G. Roberts Jr., cited Bob Dylan in a Monday dissent to a case involving a suit filed against AT&T, the New York Times reports. Roberts had 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.

Here was the quote, as it appeared in Roberts’ opinion: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” But the Times says Roberts corrected the grammar, “proving that he is neither an originalist nor a strict constructionist.” Dylan actually sings: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

The story suggests the change may be because of Internet-posted lyrics that use the grammatically correct version.

Law professor Alex Long of the University of Tennessee, who has studied citation to rock music in judicial opinions, says the opinion is the first issued by the Supreme Court to cite rock music in support of a legal proposition. Lower court judges have already broken that ground, though.

Dylan is more often cited than any other rocker, with 26 citations in judicial opinions. Paul Simon is next, with 12 citations if you include references to Simon & Garfunkel. Long’s rock review was published (PDF) in the Washington & Lee Law Review last year.

Updated at 5:08 p.m. July 2 to indicate that “ain’t” is audible but doesn’t appear in transcribed lyrics.

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