Celebrity “Citings” in Case Law

By Catherine Schutz

Ninth Circuit Judge Marsha S. Brezon recently cited comedian and political commentator John Oliver, host of HBO show Last Week Tonight, in her opinion in Paeste v. Guam, 2015 U.S. App LEXIS 15067. Oliver’s show on March 8 of this year concerned the impact a set of Supreme Court decisions from over 100 years ago currently has on U.S. territories, and Judge Brezon used this show as evidence of popular criticism of what she described as such “insular cases.”

Happily, this is not the first time that Judges have cited popular culture in their opinions. Any law student is familiar with the comic relief that humorist Judges can provide during weekly readings. Here are a few more notable examples:

  • In U.S. v. Stapleton, Judge Amul R. Thapar likened a criminal defendants attempts at using civil procedure as a diversionary tactic to “the legal equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. (U.S. v. Stapleton, 2013 WL 3967951 (E.D. Ky. 2013)).
  • Third Circuit Judge Evans cited Yogi Berra’s famous quote “A oral contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on” in lamenting the fact that the musical group the Butthole Surfers had not written up a deal they entered into with a record distributor (Walthal v. Rusk, 172 F. 3d 481 (7th Cir. 1999)).
  • In the dissenting opinion of Chambers v. State, Minnesota Supreme Court Judge Anderson objected to what he viewed as the “unconstitutional sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release” by referencing Danish physicist Niels Bohr famous quote: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” (Chambers v. State, 831 N.W.2d 311 (Minn. 2013)).
  • Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Glenn T. Harrell prefaced his opinion in In re: Tyrell A., a case concerning a flight that broke out between two high school students at their school, with a quote from the movie Fight Club: “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.” He later commented that the boys had regrettably not followed that rule. (In re: Tyrell A., 112 A.3d 468 (Md. Ct. App. 2015))
  • In his dissent to Sprint Communis. Co., L.P. v. APCC Servs., Chief Justice Roberts described his belief that respondents lacked Article III standings as “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose”, quoting Bob Dylan’s song Like a Rolling Stone. This was allegedly the first time a Supreme Court Justice has cited a rock lyric in an opinion. (Sprint Communis. Co., L.P. v. APCC Servs., 554 U.S. 269 (2008)).
  • Finally, even Justice Scalia is not immune to the draws of pop culture, referencing the movie Casablanca in his plurality opinion in Rapanos v. United States. He thanked the lower court for the original reference and included the following exchange between Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains as an illustration of “the absurdity of finding the desert filled with waters”:  “‘Captain Renault [Claude Rains]: “What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?” “‘Rick [Humphrey Bogart]: “My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “‘Captain Renault: “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.” “‘Rick: “I was misinformed.”‘” (Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006)).

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