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Chief Justice Roberts shows his writing chops

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  • John Roberts' opinions show literary flair, include pop culture references
  • Opinion in police search case parroted style of gumshoe mystery
  • He once misquoted Bob Dylan song "Like a Rolling Stone" in an opinion
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By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The case: routine. One man's summary of the facts: anything but.

Chief Justice John Roberts shows his writing chops in a dissenting Supreme Court opinion.

The man in this case is the top man at the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts, who on Tuesday turned a brief dissent in a criminal appeal into something straight out of a Dashiell Hammett detective novel.

He offered his thoughts in a case about whether a police officer's arrest of a drug suspect was proper.

Let Roberts tell the story in his own words:

"North Philly, May 4, 2001. Officer Sean Devlin, Narcotics Strike Force, was working the morning shift. Undercover surveillance. The neighborhood? Tough as a three-dollar steak. Devlin knew. Five years on the beat, nine months with the Strike Force. He'd made fifteen, twenty drug busts in the neighborhood.

"Devlin spotted him: a lone man in the corner. Another approached. Quick exchange of words. Cash handed over; small objects handed back. Each man then quickly on his own way. Devlin knew the guy wasn't buying bus tokens. He radioed a description and Officer Stein picked up the buyer. Sure enough: three bags of crack [cocaine] in the guy's pocket. Head downtown and book him. Just another day at the office."

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ultimately tossed out the suspect's conviction on possession of a controlled substance.

Seven of Roberts colleagues rejected an opportunity to fully hear the state's appeal, prompting his turn at creative opinion-writing. Justice Anthony Kennedy agreed with Roberts' conclusions, if not his flair for Sam Spade-style rhetoric.

Roberts later got serious in his dissent, writing, "I think the police clearly had probable cause to arrest the defendant."

This is not the first time the 53-year-old chief justice has spiced up his writings with cultural references. In a July dissent in an especially dry case over who can file certain lawsuits, he quoted singer Bob Dylan. Or misquoted him.

Amid arcane talk of legal standing and redressability, the youngest member of the high court showed his generational bearings by citing part of the lyrics from Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone."

"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.' " Roberts then acknowledged the line came from the singer's 1965 album "Highway 61 Revisited," and even helpfully added the record label in parentheses (Columbia Records).

Court historians will note it is very likely the first time a rock lyric was cited in a high court opinion.

But in a profession that values accuracy, Roberts got it wrong. The actual lyric on "Highway 61 Revisited" goes, "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose" -- note the word "ain't."

The elusive "ain't" has been debated by Dylan scholars. Dylan's own Web site,, does not include "ain't" in the lyrics. Other references are divided on the issue, and there are certainly recorded versions of the song that don't include it. But at least on "Highway 61 Revisited," Dylan does indeed say "ain't."

Perhaps the law clerks provided Roberts with an incorrect citation. Or maybe the chief justice just remembered the line differently from his younger, less stuffy days.

The chief justice never explained the reasons behind his literary leanings. He doesn't have to.

All About John Roberts (Chief Justice)U.S. Supreme Court

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