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February 13, 2024

Pop Culture References & Humor

By: Michael James Bruzik

Attendees of AJEI’s sixth breakout were treated to a refreshing and informative break from the typical pattern of legal discussion.  Make no mistake, the consequences of our legal system may be “no laughing matter.”  However, the session on “Pop Culture References & Humor,” dealt with a powerful tool that advocates can use to expand the reception to their arguments and drive home points with a more colorful impact.

The panel, which featured the Honorable James C. Ho, the Honorable John B. Owens, and prolific humorist/pop-culture aficionado/litigator Chad Baruch, and which was moderated by the Honorable Jacqueline H. Nyugen, offered an insightful take on the role that humor can play in helping lawyers reach their audience.  The consensus: humor and pop culture references can be an engaging technique that helps attorneys set their work apart from monotonous briefing that sometimes characterizes our profession.

The panel discussed a very practical reality.  Because judges deal with a high volume of filings, the ability to say something a way that catches the judge’s attention can be extraordinarily useful.  Something as simple as piquing your audience’s interest through humor or cultural references can go a long way towards evoking curiosity.  Judge Ho put this into perspective from his own experience on the bench.  “We have too much to deal with to begin with,” remarked Judge Ho, “if we can make reading more pleasant it is worth considering.”  In that sense, the session emphasized that a more humanized approach through humor is another way to practice good, approachable advocacy.  Sure, the law may sometimes appear driven by flavorless logic, but ultimately as attorneys we are trying to persuade.  The appeal to the human element can be very effective in that regard.

As a case-in-point, Mr. Baruch related a situation during a high stakes oral argument in which he was able to use humor to get his point across and captivate the panel.  “Last time we had a drizzle like that, Noah built a boat,” declared Mr. Baruch.  Just before this statement, opposing counsel had tried to minimize an important legal issue through the former analogy.  Mr. Baruch’s twist on the analogy sent one of the judges into an uncontainable laughter that clearly showed he was convinced of Mr. Baruch’s position.  In that moment, humor provided a shortcut to persuasion.

To that end, Mr. Baruch is hardly a stranger to more unorthodox methods of persuasion.  In fact, the panel served as an opportunity to address his involvement in the perhaps now infamous “hip-hop” amicus brief that Mr. Baruch filed before the Supreme Court of the United States along with several hip-hop artists in the case of Jamal Knox v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  The brief filed in support of a petition for a writ of certiorari suggested that a school unfairly punished a student using hip-hop to express himself in reaction to grievances against his school’s faculty.  In particular, the brief emphasized that hop-hip culture has a long history of expression to that was relevant for interpreting Mr. Knox words and which defied the idea that he was intending to genuinely threaten anyone with his music.  Fascinatingly, the brief did not cite a single legal authority or opinion, relying instead on a vast library of materials from the world of hip-hop.  The brief sent ripples through the dual worlds of popular culture and the legal profession, demonstrating the power of something outside of the norm to have broad impact.

While the Knox example perhaps demonstrates a more extreme approach, the panel discussed more subtle ways that an advocate can connect with the bench.  References to music, movies, and television can appeal to the human element and pique the interest of the audience.  A clever reference can entice further reading.  An analogy or metaphor that connects to the audience’s cultural framework can be especially persuasive.  In a watershed moment, the panel recognized that, just as classical literature once gave a common cultural experience that people used to help express and explain their experiences, so too does the modern forum of entertainment.  One of the big takeaways was recognizing how pop culture can serve as a common language for expressing important ideas in the law.  Afterall, these references are commonly found in how people speak in real life, so why not introduce it in advocacy?

The panel did, however, stress caution in using these techniques tastefully.  As a starting point, Judge Owens stressed a good litmus test, “is it self-indulgent or does it advance the case?”  In another sense, is the reference going to go over the audience’s head?  This can be especially problematic when there is an age gap between the advocate and the bench.  This suggests utility in running references past others before committing them to a signed and filed brief or making them during oral argument.

The other challenge to consider is the possibility that a reference could be seen as offensive.  Examples of this included a country music song that could be construed as racist, or the instance where a prosecutor’s attempt at humor seems to make light of their serious role in the criminal justice system.

In all, however, the panel emphasized how an appropriate cultural reference or humorous take can have a lasting impact.  Judge Nyugen concluded by explaining how more colorful briefs can often be the ones that judges want to read over and over again.  For advocates, this insight into how judges approach the topic was very insightful and should empower attorneys to seriously consider how they might apply it in their practice.

Michael James Bruzik

United States Air Force

Michael James Bruzik is a Judge Advocate in the United States Air Force serving as Appellate Defense Counsel. He is responsible for representing Air and Space Force members before the United States Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the Supreme Court of the United States for matters under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Michael graduated from the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law in 2014. Prior to his commission in the Air Force, he served as an Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of Chicago Department of Law.

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