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Nothing to Draw When Nothing to See Leaves SCOTUS Artists Idle

May 13, 2020, 8:50 AM

Art Lien has been tuning in for what’s both familiar and unrecognizable during the first-ever live audio of Supreme Court oral arguments.

Like others in the intimate courtroom on a typical argument day, Lien from his seat just to the right of the justices on the bench would look closely for visual cues about how they are interpreting a case.

Unlike others, he’d turn those expressions and gestures, like a brief discussion between Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer, into a color portrait. His sketches, and those of other artists, of the justices and advocates are the only way all but a few can see what takes place when the court publicly convenes.

He’s listens closely to arguments, which are live-streamed through Wednesday. But that’s all he can do. There’s little to draw.

“There’s a lot to look at in courtroom,” the veteran artist said, and “a lot missing” when you can’t see it.

Fellow artist and D.C.-area courtroom veteran William Hennessy said he normally pays close attention to what’s said by the justices and advocates. But it would be still be difficult to capture key moments now for an image.

Working fast, sometimes a small turn of the head or a slight facial reaction or even an eye roll can clue you into how a justice is thinking about an issue, he said.

In the visual arts, “you need to be there to see it,” Hennessy said.

William Hennessy sketch of Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill arguing at Supreme Court.
Courtesy of William Hennessy.

Lien and Hennessy are beneficiaries of deeply-seated tradition and an aversion by the justices to break from it to permit cameras at the Supreme Court. Judges and administrative officials have proven overall to be profoundly reluctant to permit cameras into any federal court, keeping courtroom artists busy when high profile cases demand imagery only they can provide.

The Supreme Court and the advocates have moved on for the time being. With reviews of audio arguments largely favorable in the legal community and the public despite a slower pace and some technological and timing glitches—including difficulties with the mute button on their phones and the random toilet flush—nobody knows when the justices will again convene in public.

For Lien and Hennessy, their roles have been uniquely affected, and they’ll have all summer to think about it.

Lien says audio going forward may indeed work for his craft as television will need images of some kind to go with sound clips. On the other hand, the pandemic-fueled lockdown also has given him a “taste for retirement.”

He’s been riding his bike a lot.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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