The gavel and the guitar: Impact of popular music on law

Music and popular culture have long provided the heft to awareness of rights and equity amongst the masses, and have often found their way in judgments of the courts.

By Major Navdeep Singh and Professor (Dr) Shruti Bedi

Singers, poets and minstrels have alluded to justice - especially social justice - since days of yore. Lawyers and judges returning the melodic favour in their work, however, is not that old. The wit and the soul and the lyric render the ‘court of record’ an entirely new denotation.

One interesting aspect that stands out in the interplay of popular culture and the law is the heavy reliance on Bob Dylan. From Chief Justice of the United States John G Roberts Jr citing Bob Dylan in his dissent in Sprint Communications v. APCC Services (2008) albeit misquoting the actual lyric as “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose” instead of “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”, to Justices Dama Seshadri Naidu, Protik Prakash Banerjee and Siddharth Mridul of the Kerala, Calcutta and Delhi High Courts respectively, invoking him in their judgments, the Minnesotan has flourished in the jurisprudential milieu. And this is in addition to his anthems lending sustenance to civil rights movements all around the world since the 1960s. Agreeable seems the hypothesis, therefore, of Chief Judge Mark W Klingensmith of the Florida Court of Appeal and the author of the book Lyrics in the Law, when he opines in an interview with Judicature (Duke Law School, 2020) that judges tend more to quote songs popular during their formative years in college and law school. 

Interestingly, Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, despite being a self-confessed Dylan fan, aptly cited Leonard Cohen’s Democracy in Navtej Singh Johar v Union of India (2018) rather than his favourite. However, while bidding adieu to his colleague Justice MR Shah on his retirement, the Chief Justice's penchant for the music legend came forth in his speech – “when the winds of changes shift, may your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung, may you stay forever young.” Notably, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul recently beckoned Bon Jovi’s It’s my Life in his minority opinion in Supriyo alias Supriya Chakraborty v. Union of India (2023).

Particularly in Indian judgments, Sahir Ludhianvi is oft quoted. Justice Markandey Katju cited Ludhianvi in Budhadev Karmaskar v. State of West Bengal (2011). Poetry, of course, is no stranger to Indian jurisprudence- Justice Katju also recited Mirza Ghalib the same year while faced with the dilemma on the question of euthanasia in the matter of Nurse Aruna R Shanbaug. “Marte hain aarzoo mein marne ki, Maut aati hai par nahin aati (One dies longing for death but death, despite being around, is elusive)” was the impactful opening line of the judgment.  

In an interesting courtroom exchange, also reported in the media, former Chief Justice of India TS Thakur, then a judge of the Delhi High Court, gave a very long date of hearing in a case to the counsel Najmi Waziri, who later himself was elevated as a judge of the Delhi High Court. Justice Waziri, then a lawyer, wanting a shorter date recited Ghalib, “…kaun jeeta hai teri zulf ke sar hone tak?” (Who would wait so long to fix your hair?). Justice Thakur, who had almost left the courtroom, came back and asked him to recite the first line of the couplet. Waziri said, “Aah ko chaahiye ik umr asar hone tak” (It takes a lifetime for sighs to be acknowledged by the beloved). “List the case next week,” said Justice Thakur.

Citing poetry or popular music in legal writing is not simply aimed at making a prefatory quotation though. The music that we live with speaks of the identity of an individual, and its socially creative usage drives home a point. Of course, it might just pitch that judgment to the top of the charts!

But on a serious note, what makes music, law and justice great bandmates? For one, music, a collective language, tends to bridge the gap between the popular and the technical - a commonality, a universal link that connects the public, especially in common law jurisdictions, to what is perceived as the domain of experts, making it accessible and contextually comprehensible.

Perhaps more importantly, it gives soul to the staid, renders colour to the black and white, grants fragrance to the paper.

Also, music and popular culture have long provided the heft to awareness of rights and equity amongst the masses, so when Dylan sings “for the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin” or “and how many years can some people exist, before they're allowed to be free?” or when Prince asserts “peace is more than the absence of war…if there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace”, it is a temporal call for lawyers and judges to rise to the occasion as protectors of the masses, of the downtrodden, of the underdog, as foot-soldiers for the cause of justice armed with an accordion, and perhaps a Spotify subscription!

Major Navdeep Singh is a practising lawyer at the Punjab & Haryana High Court.

Professor (Dr) Shruti Bedi is Professor of Law and Director of the University Institute of Legal Studies (UILS), Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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