With Dylan, Lawyers May Stay ‘Forever Young’

By Tara Krieger

He’s been the poet laureate of folk music for half a century, more a symbol than a man. His lyrics have pervaded discussions of matters surrounding politics, jurisprudence, civil rights, emancipation, the environment, literature, and economics.

So how many roads must a legal scholar walk down before running into a Bob Dylan lyric? The answer, my friend, was demonstrated at a two-day symposium hosted by Fordham in conjunction with Touro Law School on Bob Dylan and the Law.

‘Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen….’

One of the panelists was NYLS’s own Michael Perlin. He estimates having used Dylan-inspired titles for over fifty law review articles and book chapters, because “there is nobody like Bob who has spoken on so many different issues.”

Speaking ‘in the jingle-jangle morning’ Tuesday in front of thirty enthused academics, Professor Perlin dared say that Dylan’s story of the “Hurricane” (‘the man authorities came to blame for something that he never done’) and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (about the too-lenient sentencing of an aristocrat who murdered a ‘maid of the kitchen’) had more of an impact on “the way the American public thinks about the criminal justice system than all the professors of criminal law and procedure put together.”

“’Hurricane’ contextualizes the racial stuff a lot better than a law review article written in the passive tone,” Professor Perlin said.


But ‘don’t think twice – it’s all right.’

Abbe Smith, a professor at Georgetown Law School, professed that Dylan’s 1975 epic about the racially-motivated wrongful imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter “could be a brilliant opening statement.” Allison Connelly, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, has used “Hurricane” to teach her students about trial advocacy, and Tracy McGaugh, a Touro professor, has taught the concept of case theory to first-year law students through the concise metric of “Hattie Carroll.”

‘And every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal…’

Then again, Professor Smith added, Dylan didn’t “let the facts get in the way of a good story,” noting that “Hurricane” (which he wrote with Jacques Levy) did not even mention Mr. Carter’s prior criminal record. And Pete Kennedy of the folk duo The Kennedys (who laid down his weary tune by performing a few of Dylan’s law-related songs on Monday night) also pointed out how Dylan glorified deadly gunslinger John Wesley Hardin(g) in an eponymous song, but vilified Hattie Carroll’s killer, one-time offender William Zan(t)zinger (and indeed changing the spelling of both names).

“Lawyers and judges are drawn to storytellers,” said Alex Long, a law professor at University of Tennessee, who spoke on the symposium’s opening panel Monday night. “Lawyers are taught to be storytellers from their first year of law school. And Dylan was just better at telling stories than anyone else.”

Professor Long has done extensive research on trends of popular song lyrics appearing in court opinions, which he published in the Washington and Lee Law Review in 2007. And while “judges aren’t citing Johnny Rotten very often,” they seem to gravitate toward melodic raconteurs such as Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Woody Guthrie. But by sheer quantity of citations, those troubadours are all ‘knockin’ on heaven’s door’ compared to Dylan, whom Professor Long found cited in twenty-six cases and 160 law journal articles as of his study’s publication date. By comparison, the Beatles, who were next on the list, were cited in three cases and seventy-four articles.

It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe.’

Everyone wants to believe the music they listen to says something about who they are,” Professor Long said. “Judges live a very cloistered life. Law writing is very stifling. It’s very formulaic. The chance to throw in your favorite lyric loosens it up a bit.

Supreme Court Justices have cited Dylan lyrics recently in two opinions – though surprisingly, they’ve been two of the most Conservative justices on the bench. In his dissent for Sprint Communications Co. v. APCC Services, to bolster his position for the case’s lack of standing, Chief Justice John Roberts added, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” And Justice Antonin Scalia, in City of Ontario v. Quon, complained that “The-times-they-are-a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty.”

‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola of the District of Columbia, who grew up a folk music aficionado, noted that the influence Dylan had over his generation was apparent in that “so many of us went into public service” (qualifying, however, that it had as much to do with the culture and politics of the 1960’s as anything else). He may have particularly been thinking about Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Trott, who ‘once upon a time dressed so fine’ as a member of The Highwaymen.

“The music you hear as a teen impacts you,” said Professor Long. “It shapes your world view.”

So in twenty years will we be seeing lots of U2 and Nirvana in court opinions of judges ‘so much older then but younger than that now’?

“One recent opinion actually cited Ludacris,” said Professor Long. “But only jokingly.”

But let us not talk falsely, now. The hour is getting late.’

Some of Dylan’s work has left its mark on the law – “Hurricane,” for instance, was in part instrumental in granting its subject a new trial.

“His lyrics reflect the way people take the law seriously,” said Professor Perlin. “Many of Bob’s songs about the law are ‘crying out to us like a fire in the sun.’”



2 Responses

  1. Tiffany Lubin says:

    I was only able to go to the portion of this event open to the public (it was awesome). Nice to read about the rest of it, too.

  2. bee says:

    I don’t mind when they quote from Dylan’s songs except when they get the lyrics wrong…and it seems they always do..

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