Most Quoted in Supreme Court Decisions: Bob Dylan


It’s apparent in so many ways that the times are, indeed, a’ changing, and we’ll get a clearer idea of how much they’re changing when the recently deceased Antonin Scalia is replaced on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why? Because for the past few years, with the average of justices falling into that range (a bit more than 70, right now) where ordinary folk are said to be ‘of a certain age’, Bob Dylan has been the songwriter most-quoted by SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the U.S.) justices in their opinions.

More often, perhaps, in dissents, because “you have a little more leeway there,” Chief Justice John Roberts said earlier this month while being interviewed by Dean John F. O’Brian of New England Law – aka The New England School of Law, of Boston.

But what, you may be wondering, does the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice have to do with how often Dylan (or any songwriter) is cited by that court? Simply this: If the new justice is significantly younger, perhaps even than today’s youngest SCOTUS member, Elena Kagan, who is 55, his or her favorite songwriter is likely to be of a more recent vintage than the early Bob Dylan, the vintage that is most-often quoted in the court’s decisions.

Dylan rocked the music world, and musical history, with a huge outpouring of material from 1963 through 1965, a short period, but the time when much of his most memorable work was presented to an often-astonished public. And though he’s been churning out music for more than half a century, many of his best-known works are from that period.

And many of them, including “Blowing in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” have had snippets of lyrics woven into SCOTUS decisions.

The first such reference was by Chief Justice John Roberts, in a 2008 dissent in what actually was a misquote. The issue concerned whether or not collection agencies for pay phone companies had ‘standing’ – a vested interest – in the case at hand. Roberts, citing ‘Blowing in the Wind’ as his ‘authority,’ said, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

True Dylan fans rightly complained that he’d left out the word ‘ain’t’:  “When you ain’t got nothing…”

The Dylan line most often quoted by justices, at the highest and lower levels, is “You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” from “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

And it’s not just courts that quote him: A New York Times article (2/22/16) noted that a recent study found 213 references to Dylan in medical journals.

But, as The Times pondered, will a younger justice – if we get a new 9th justice within any current American’s lifetime – be offering up quotes from, say, Billy Joel, Mick Jagger, Sting (hopefully not “I’ll be watching you”!) or even Taylor Swift? (Hopefully not “I make the moves up as I go (moves up as I go”) (from her ‘Shake It Off’.)

I have about as much interest in her music as she does, I venture to guess, about Supreme Court rulings. But as Dylan noted, in a slightly different context, “It’s alright ma, I’m only sighing.” You could bet against quotes from her showing up in future SCOTUS decisions, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Swift could be quoted because many of her lines are, as Alex B. Long, a law professor at the University of Tennessee said of Dylan’s, “pithy, memorable and pointed. They’re great lines on their own, and they’re also really useful to convey the legal concept [a justice] is trying to get across.”

Like many other songwriters, Swift also offers up some amazingly ‘pithy,’ right-to-the-point lyrics.

I mention her only because I have great admiration for her devotion to her craft, and for her business acumen.

I read a profile article on her recently, and she appears – if what was said can be believed – to devote herself about 97% to that craft. The rest of the time, she sleeps. We should all be so fortunate!