Judges Are Getting Real Cute With Their Citations

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 20, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Clever, subtle, cutting judicial citations are nothing new. The Ninth Circuit's recent opinion halting President Trump's travel ban is a perfect example, full as it was of citations to cases like Ex parte Endo (leading to the end of Japanese internment) and Texas v. United States (halting President Obama's immigration reforms.) There are the sorts of smack downs by way of the Blue Book that make judicial writing a treat.

But there's another, more interesting citation style trending among the judiciary lately: clever, unexpected cites to unexpected, perhaps incongruous, pop culture touchstones, be they 80s sitcoms or horror movie classics.

Where Everybody Knows Your Id.

The most recent noteworthy pop culture cite comes from Judge Stephen Dillard of Georgia's Court of Appeals (and of Twitter, too). In a case involving executive clemency powers in the Goober State, Judge Dillard was tasked with interpreting the breadth of a specific pardon. That set up an extended metaphor involving cocktail bars, horticulture, and the classic sitcom "Cheers."

Here's the key passage:

If legislative history is "the equivalent of entering a crowded cocktail party and looking over the heads of the guests for one's friends," then using unattributable language on a website to inform the meaning of a statute, regulation, or pardon is the equivalent of leaving the cocktail party altogether, driving past establishments not to your liking, and going straight to the pub "where everybody knows your name" and they always tell you what you want to hear. If the former is cherry picking, then the latter is an endless orchard full of interpretive possibilities.

The phrase "where everybody knows your name," is in turn cited, via footnote, to Gary Portnoy's "Cheers" theme song.

Cutting? Not exactly. A bit cute and sarcastic? Definitely.

Cf. the Alien Invasion

If Judge Dillard's "Cheers" citation put a smile on your face, another cite from the Ninth Circuit's Judge John B. Owens left us gagging, in a good way. Two weeks ago, Judge Owens issued a short dissent to a Ninth Circuit case finding broad whistleblower protections in the Dodd-Frank Act. His beef was with a citation itself, specifically the court's cite to King v. Burwell for the contention that a single term in a statute can have different meanings depending on the context.

In his brief dissent, he writes:

In my view, we should quarantine King and its potentially dangerous shapeshifting nature to the specific facts of that case to avoid jurisprudential disruption on a cellular level. Cf. John Carpenter's The Thing (Universal Pictures 1982).

"The Thing" is the classic 80s horror film about a parasitic alien that slowly takes over the minds and bodies of a group of researchers in Antarctic.

Now that, my friends, is a great citation.

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