The media and the American public were abuzz when the Supreme Court of the United States issued District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court’s first meaningful interpretation of the Second Amendment in nearly seventy years. Likewise, environmentalists, Alaskan citizens, and punitive damage enthusiasts paid rapt attention to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, the case in which the Supreme Court held that the punitive damages awarded in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case were excessive. But did anyone expect there to be so much attention paid to Sprint Communications Co. v. APCC Services, Inc., a case about whether an assignee of a legal claim for money owed has standing to pursue that claim in federal court, even when the assignee has promised to remit the proceeds of the litigation to the assignor?

If you actually made it through the question presented without your eyes glazing over, you’d surely agree that this doesn’t seem like the kind of case that would find any level of interest with the American public. So why did this case make its way to the blogging netherworld? The answer lies within John Roberts’ dissenting opinion. While the majority held that the assignee does in fact have legal standing, Roberts, in his dissent, argued that the assignee does not have standing if the assignee has promised to remit the proceeds to the assignor. What made his dissent significant, however, was not the legal position Roberts took, but rather one of the authorities he cited in making his argument:

The absence of any right to the substantive recovery means that respondents cannot benefit from the judgment they seek and thus lack Article III standing. “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” Bob Dylan, Like A Rolling Stone, on Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia Records 1965).

While this isn’t even close to the first time that Bob Dylan has been cited as legal authority, it is the first time that the Supreme Court has cited the musical legend. Music geeks enjoyed pointing out that the lyric was cited incorrectly, noting the line should have been written as “When you ain’t got nothing,” in all of Dylan’s double-negative glory. Other Supreme Court aficionados just enjoyed watching the Supreme Court’s “first baby boomer” having some fun in the dissenting opinion of a case that otherwise would have been read by very few.

The problem with citing rock music, of course, is that for every lyric that offers one proposition there is a lyric that stands for something completely different. If I was writing the Roberts dissent, I would have covered all my bases and quoted another singer-songwriter that I’m a fan of (hey, it’s a dissenting opinion, after all):

The absence of any right to the substantive recovery means that respondents cannot benefit from the judgment they seek and thus lack Article III standing. “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” Bob Dylan, Like A Rolling Stone, on Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia Records 1965), but see Todd Snider, Looking for a Job, The Devil You Know (New Door Records 2006) (“Watch what you say to someone with nothing, it’s almost like having it all.”).

Of course, Roberts would have been able to make a strong argument that even if having nothing is “almost” like having it all, it still wouldn’t constitute the necessary “something” for Article III standing. Hey, if you’re going to have some fun in your opinion, why not go all out?

– Nick Lynton

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