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Hey Mr. Tamborine Man, Write an Opinion for Me


The national legal correspondent for the New York Times, Adam Liptak, was looking through a U.S. Supreme Court decision in what he describes as an achingly boring case.

The tedium lifted when he discovered that no less than the chief justice of the land, John Roberts, had spiced his opinion with lyrics from the classic Bob Dylan folk song, "Like a Rolling Stone":

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.

Liptak astutely pointed out that the chief justice slightly misquoted the folksinger. Dylan actually wrote:

When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose.

But after reading a long paper by a University of Tennessee law professor, Liptak went on note that many judicial opinions borrow from popular songs.

So we peeked at that academic paper, by Prof. Alex Long, and sure enough, legal texts are replete with words from pop and rock songs. How can you speak out against the spoiling of natural resources, for instance, Professor Long suggests, without referencing Joni Mitchell's lines from "Big Yellow Taxi":

They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot.

Long even came up with a list of the most frequently quoted musical artists. Bruce Springsteen placed third. The Beatles came in second. And the aforementioned Bob Dylan appears to be the most referenced songwriter in American law. Reporter Liptak found Dylan's line, You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, from Subterranean Homesick Blues, in 19 different court decisions.

It'll really be newsworthy, though, when vintage pop lyrics like Who put the bomp in the bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp?/Who put the ram in the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong? show up in a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

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