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In some courts, Dylan rules

The lyrics of the protest era troubador are cited more often in judicial opinions than any other musician's, experts say.

May 09, 2011|Carol J. Williams

On summer nights in the mid-1960s, while black-and-white television crackled elsewhere in his Staten Island home with news of Southern violence and Vietnam, Bobby Lasnik would stretch out in his bedroom to let the righteous soundtrack of the civil rights movement waft into his impressionable teenage soul.

Tuned in to WBAI-FM, coming across the water from Manhattan, he heard baleful laments about injustice that he would carry with him for a lifetime.

"Suddenly there was someone speaking a certain kind of truth to you. You'd say, 'Wow! That's something I'm not used to hearing on the radio, something that moved me,' " Lasnik said of the first time he heard the lyrics of Bob Dylan. "I don't even remember which song it was, but I loved the imagery, the words you wouldn't think about putting together and the concepts that would emerge in your mind when you heard them."

Now the imagery flows in the other direction. U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik -- Your Honor, not Bobby -- has been known to invoke the voice of the vagabond poet in rulings from the federal bench in Seattle. He has recited lines from "Chimes of Freedom" in a case weighing the legality of indefinite detention and "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the battle cry of the civil rights movement, in a landmark ruling that excluding contraceptives from an employer's prescription drug plan constitutes sex discrimination.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 12, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Bob Dylan lyrics: In the May 9 Section A, an article about the use of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan's lyrics in legal opinions and briefs misstated the university affiliation of Alex Long, a professor who has researched political songwriting and the legal system. Long is a professor at the University of Tennessee, not the University of Texas.

Lasnik isn't alone in weaving Dylan's protest era pathos into contemporary legal discourse.

No musician's lyrics are more often cited than Dylan's in court opinions and briefs, say legal experts who have chronicled the artist's influence on today's legal community. From U.S. Supreme Court rulings to law school courses, Dylan's words are used to convey messages about the law and courts gone astray.

His signature protest songs, "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'," gave voice and vocabulary to the antiwar and civil rights marches. His most powerful ballads, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "Hurricane," have become models for legal storytelling and using music to make a point.

Dylan's music and values have imprinted themselves on the justice system because his songs were the score playing during the formative years of the judges and lawyers now populating the nation's courthouses, colleges and blue-chip law firms, says Michael Perlin, a New York Law School professor who has used Dylan lyrics as titles for at least 50 published law journal articles.

Perlin and others lured to the law by the moral siren songs of the 1960s credit Dylan with roles in passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, federal sentencing guidelines that purport to ensure more equitable prison terms and due process reforms prohibiting racial profiling.

"Everyone wants to believe that the music they listen to says something about who they are," says Alex Long, a University of Texas law professor who has researched the penetration of political songwriting into the legal system.

"Being a judge is a pretty cloistered existence, having to crank out these opinions in isolation. Dylan was popular at the time they were coming of age and trying to figure out who they were," says Long, a 41-year-old exposed to Dylan's musings as a child at the foot of his parents' record player. "The chance to throw in a line from your favorite artist is tempting, a chance to let your freak flag fly."

During a semester in 2007, Long combed legal databases to identify lyrics in court filings and scholarly publications, finding Dylan cited 186 times, far outpacing the rest of the top 10: the Beatles, 74; Bruce Springsteen, 69; Paul Simon, 59; Woody Guthrie, 43; the Rolling Stones, 39; the Grateful Dead, 32; Simon & Garfunkel, 30; Joni Mitchell, 28; and R.E.M., 27.

And it doesn't end with musicians. In apparent efforts to add rhetorical flourish to their rulings, judges have also often cited famous writers and humorists. In a U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruling last year, Judge Francis M. Allegra lamented the perplexity of the 1982 Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, writing that it "is the sort of law that brings to mind the old Mark Twain line: 'The more you explain it, the more I don't understand it.' "

But to date, it is the songs of the 1960s that seem to have the judges' ears.

One oft-cited line comes from Dylan's first top 10 hit, which half a dozen California appellate court rulings have included to convey that expert testimony is unnecessary to make a point obvious to any layman.


You don't need a weatherman

To know which way the wind blows.

-- "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

(end italics)

Georgetown Law School Professor Abbe Smith describes Dylan's "Hattie Carroll" as "an almost perfect ballad, a little bit of story and a little bit of lecture." It mocks the injustice of a six-month jail sentence given a wealthy Maryland socialite, William Zantziger, for the 1963 beating death of black barmaid Hattie Carroll for being too slow to bring his drink.

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