An Irishman's Diary


AMONG Bob Dylan’s many achievements in a life that has now lasted 70 years and a day is that he has become by far the most quoted songwriter in courtrooms and law schools, at least in his native US. Yes, a study carried out in 2007 by a Tennessee law professor found no fewer than 186 Dylan citations in legal documents and articles, including judgments of the Supreme Court. The Beatles came a distant second with only 74.

On the face of it, Dylan’s influence on judges might be a cause for concern. This is no reflection on him. It’s just that, despite the genre’s well-known preoccupation with justice, folk music is not always a sound basis for deciding law. The humorist Dave Barry summed up the problem when he paraphrased one of Dylan’s heroes, Woody Guthrie, viz: “This land is your land,/This land is my land,/Looks like one of us,/Has a forged deed to the land.” But the fact is that many people who were impressionable students back in Dylan’s heyday, when he was the darling of every college campus, are now senior lawyers and judges. It’s no surprise that they internalised some of the values expressed in his songs, or that they should now regurgitate them on occasion. In fact, to some extent, Dylan lyrics may just have replaced another well-known legal prop – Latin terminology – for lawyers trying to sound learned. And maybe this is an improvement.

There is, after all, something for everyone in Dylan’s songs: from the most desperate defendant (“It ain’t me, babe. It ain’t me you’re looking for, babe”) to the most hard-line Old-Testament prosecutor (“Everybody must get stoned”). Not that either of those examples features much, in practice. Instead, according to the research, the line most frequently cited is from the 1965 classic, Subterranean Homesick Blues.

This is particularly useful in complex cases, where there has been a lot of “expert” evidence, and where judges or lawyers have to appeal to juries to rely on common sense. There’s probably a Latin phrase for it. But there’s also: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. And in California, especially, this has become standard court usage.

A line from Like a Rolling Stoneis also popular with lawyers. “When you ain’t got nothin, you got nothin to lose” may sound like a statement of the obvious. Even so, as great a jurist as the US Chief Justice saw fit to cite it in 2008 when explaining why billing firms hired by pay-phone operators, having themselves no claim on the money, had no standing to sue.

Interestingly – perhaps fearing that the line’s double negative might provide a loophole for appeal lawyers – the judge misquoted it slightly, as “when you got nothing”. Note that even then, however, he preserved the lack of grammar that is central to Dylan’s best work.

Few song-titles can have been more quoted in the past 50 years than The times they are a-changin’. And of course that song’s lyrics were a warning to the establishment not to get in way of said change. So there was a fine irony in the line’s citation – only last year – by a conservative member of the US Supreme Court, Justice Scalia.

He was lecturing High Court judges for declining to rule on employee privacy rights vis-a-vis company e-mail, their reason being that technology in the area was still evolving. Scalia was dismissive, suggesting the judges’ Times they are a-changingstance – as he characterised it – was a feeble excuse not to do their job.

Like that one, the Dylan lines typically referred to in law tend to come from the earliest phase of his career. There are obvious reasons. For one thing, it was his protest era, and songs like The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrollare overtly concerned with questions of justice. Also – and this is an important point – you could still make sense of his lyrics then.

Later in the 1960s and beyond, his work took a turn for the wilfully obscure. This also coincided with him going electric, to the disgust of some fans. But never mind legal Latin, songs like Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Againcould be written in Early Aramaic for most people know what they mean.

Here’s another area, incidentally, where I think Dylan has been an influence on the law. In my years covering the Irish courts, I used to suspect that all judges and barristers were old hippies, given their insistence on wearing long hair (which was not even theirs in most cases), using only acoustic equipment, and mumbling all the time, so that reporters at the back of the court couldn’t hear a word.

I longed for the day when they too would go electric. And I’m told they since have done, at least in Dublin. Nobody booed, either. On the other hand, I’m also told that they have a habit of not speaking into the microphones provided, so reporters still can’t follow the lyrics. But at least it was a move in the right direction. Now that they’ve been dragged into the mid-1960s, I look forward to them reaching Modern Times,eventually, as Dylan did in 2006.