6 Bizarre Court Cases That Had A Surprising Impact

1Internment of Japanese Citizens Spurs Civil Rights Laws

This story is both an embarrassment to the United States as well as a strange blessing in disguise. During the height of World War II, people of Japanese descent were interred in “relocation camps” for the duration of the war, regardless of their citizenship. Many lost their homes, their livelihood, and their dignity. One man tried to right this wrong by taking the government to court. The trial, Korematsu v. United States, made it all the way to the Supreme Court where, in an extremely controversial decision, the justices sided with the U.S. They said that the unusual situation met the standard of “strict scrutiny” - there was a compelling government interest (i.e. we were at war), it was narrowly tailored (only Japanese, although Italians were relocated as well), and it was the least restrictive means to achieve their goals. The decision was never overturned, although the policy was disavowed and President Reagan personally apologized for it. However, its surprising impact is that “strict scrutiny” became the standard which many laws must meet, including school segregation and interracial marriage. Now, with gay marriage before the Supremes, we will find out if the legacy of this awful era of American history will help overturn another unjust law and give same-sex couples the same rights as everyone else.

2The “Happy Birthday” Court Case

We've all sung this song hundreds of times during our lives, but did you know that it is not in the public domain? That's right, “Happy Birthday” is still under copyright – every time you hear it in a movie or TV show, a license fee is paid to Warner/Chappell music. Well, Jennifer Nelson, a filmmaker, is suing to change that. She is currently doing a documentary on the origins of “Happy Birthday” and was told she must pay $1500 to include the short song in the film. Outraged, she has turned to the legal system with the goal to return the copyright to the public. Robert Brauneis, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, has written a long dissertation called “Copyright and The World's Most Popular Song” where he traces its beginnings to two sisters in the 1800s, Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill, who wrote “Good Morning To All,” with the now-familiar melody. He argues in his paper that it is long out of copyright. The case is still pending, but either way its outcome will have far-reaching implications for other songs with murky pasts, and that's why Warner/Chappell is defending it so vigorously.

3Chambers V. God Lawsuit in Nebraska

Ernie Chambers is with God – I mean Dog.

On its face, this case seems completely absurd. Long time Nebraska State Senator and outspoken civil activist Ernie Chambers made international headlines when he brought a lawsuit against God for “widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth's inhabitants." Chambers, an African American and self-proclaimed advocate for the poor, said he filed the suit in an attempt to show how important it is that all citizens be able to air any grievance before a court; he was opposed to the numerous laws trying to be passed preventing “frivolous” lawsuits. “The Constitution requires that the courthouse doors be open, so you cannot prohibit the filing of suits. Anyone can sue anyone they choose, even God,” he was quoted as saying. The Court was not amused. The suit was eventually dismissed because God did not have an address and, therefore, could not be served notice of the trial. (I guess “everywhere” is not enough…)

4Court Overturns Father's Grounding of Daughter

"I'll see you in court, dad..."

Here's a bizarre case that won the praise of 12-year-olds worldwide. A Canadian court overruled a young girl's father, who refused to let his daughter go on a field trip; the father was allegedly outraged that the tween had posted her picture on a dating site. The judge that ruled in the girl's favor cited evidence that the child had already been “sufficiently disciplined” by the mother. Again, although this case seems frivolous on its face, it reinforces the jurisdiction of Canadian Family Court to protect young people. The father and mother were divorced - in these types of cases children are often represented in court by their own lawyer. "The court is there to be an objective third party, and these children who are in these high-conflict situations need the protection of the court," Miriam Grassby, a Quebec family lawyer, was quoted as saying.

5Mattel V. MCA Records Over “Barbie Girl” Song

Please don't sue us, Barbie!

This bizarre case involves two giant corporations essentially fighting over a doll. To wit: MCA records released a single of a song entitled “Barbie Girl” by Aqua in 1997. The song was sarcastic, with lyrics like “I'm a blond bimbo girl, in a fantasy world.” Mattel's lawyers were pissed and filed a suit, accusing MCA of violating their copyrights and trademarks and tarnishing the reputation of their most famous product. They even claimed that the single's pink color was a infringement on their “patented” Barbie color. Aqua defended their song as social satire and pointed to their liner notes, which reinforced their claim. Barbie shot back, saying that the language on the CD was akin to “a bank robber handing a note of apology to a teller during a heist.” Now it was MCA's turn to get their panties in a bunch, and they counter-sued, saying they were defamed by being called thieves. Mattel lost the case, but tried to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, where it was rejected. (“The parties are advised to chill,” the judge wrote.) What's important about this case is that it reinforced the right of artists to use parody without having to get permission.

6Pringles V. Crisps - Which Are They?

"I call to the witness stand Thaddius J. Pringle..."

In the UK, “crisps” are items that "must be wholly, or substantially wholly, made from the potato" and therefore subject to a 17.5% VAT. Proctor & Gamble, the makers of Pringles, essentially went to court to prove that their product was NOT wholly made from a potato - it had a unique shape and “mouth melt” that was unlike a regular crisp and only contained 42% potato flour. Initially, Justice Warren agreed with P & G and lifted the tax, but the company lost in an appeal. The surprising impact of such a minor clarification resulted in 100 million pounds in back taxes. That's a lot of cans of Pringles!