Bob Dylan Lyrics as Oral Law?



“Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call. Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall,” sang Bob Dylan in his 1964 anthem “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Dylan was excoriating Washington decision makers for dragging their heels on passing the Civil Rights Act. But his lyrics have since become de rigueur for judges explaining legal decisions, much the way rabbis cite the Oral Torah aka the Mishnah and Gemara to justify their positions.

The late Justice Antonin Scalia dismissed the majority decision in a 2010 case involving sexually explicit text messages, because technology was evolving so fast. “The-times-they-are-a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty,” he wrote. Chief Justice John Roberts argued, in a 2008 case involving collection agencies for pay-phone companies, that the companies lacked a direct, personal stake in the litigation. “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose,” Roberts wrote, paraphrasing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

But the most cited Dylan lyric (according to law professor Alex Long) comes from “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” When a lawyer calls up an expert to make an obvious point, judges will remind the court that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Photo credit: Xavier Badosa, Wikimedia

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