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Music and Law: A Match Made in (Secular) Heaven

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

During the summers, everyone's so starved for Supreme Court news that any utterance from one of the Nine is met with excitement. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's recent discussion about the intersection of music and law was no exception.

If you haven't read about Justice Ginsburg's talk on opera and the Constitution at the American Bar Association's annual meeting, The Wall Street Journal has more on her "Arias of Law" panel here.

But should it be big news? There are plenty of musical musings about the law, even outside of the Court's preferred lyrical genre.

Join us for a quick stroll through the decades to verify that theory.

Let's start with the 70s. Who can forget Eric Clapton's affirmative defense that he shot the sheriff, but he did not shoot the deputy? (Sorry, Clapton, but that won't even stand up in the South, where "he needed killin'" is a valid defense;* it certainly wouldn't win you sympathy in a habeas appeal.)

In the 80s, we had Michael Jackson's paternity denial in "Billie Jean." Maybe Billie Jean was just a girl who said the King of Pop was the one, but accusations are pointless without a paternity lawsuit. And if there was a paternity suit, MJ would have needed a lot more than an assertion that "the kid is not my son" to avoid child support. (Talk is cheap; even Maury Povich requires a DNA test.)

In the 90s, Fiona Apple claimed that she needed a good defense because she felt like a criminal. It sounds like Fiona was plagued by a criminal mind, without an actual criminal act or charge. Absent an arrest, she wouldn't be entitled to a court-appointed attorney, but Fiona probably has enough cash left from residuals (and her new tour!) to cover legal fees if she still wants to keep counsel on retainer.

Looking for probable cause to hold a suspect? In his 2001 jam "Mississippi,"Afroman reminded us:

Officer Roscoe P. Coltrane
Runnin' warrant checks on the Afroman
But I can't be no hip hop star
Cuffed in the back of some police car
Did you find the gun? NO!
Did you find the dope? NO!
Open up the back door
"Well son, you're free to go"

And it's not just musicians who reference the law; Supreme Court justices have been known to reference music, too.

Justice Rehnquist was a Gilbert and Sullivan fan who nodded to Iolanthe with his gold-striped sleeves, while Justice O'Connor referenced The Music Man in a case involving a victim who was bludgeoned to death with a pool cue. (Now that's "trouble with a capital 'T' and that rhymes with 'P' and that stands for pool!")

Lawyers frequently discuss the connections between music and law. (Clearly, everyone agrees the cops employed racial profiling when they tried to catch Chamillionaire ridin' dirty.) The media frenzy around Justice Ginsburg's comments wasn't about the novel nature of her lecture; it was about the Supreme Court summer drought.

*Editor's Note: The author of this post is a southerner by birth and therefore should not be assumed to be prejudiced against, nor ignorant of, southern mores.

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