Few people have the opportunity to see a hearing in the Supreme Court. Art Lien is one of them. As an artist who has sketched the courtyard for more than four decades, Lien has visited and studied hundreds of arguments. In a courtroom with no cameras, Lien uses little more than pencil and paper (and then a bit of watercolor) to capture the work of the court for all to see. At least he used to. As with everything in 2020, that has changed. The world joined in to keep the virus away, and so did the court.
The judges have not held a face-to-face meeting since early March. From May onwards they made long-distance telephone calls. Except for a couple of botches, the transition was relatively smooth. The court now allows live audio streaming of its arguments – an advancement in terms of transparency and access. Still, no one could see what was going on.
Lien changed that. Unlike when the trial was open, he could not watch and draw the lawyers in real time. So he did the next best thing. In October, at the start of the 2020-21 term, he asked oral attorneys to send photos documenting their distant arguments. He used these photos to create illustrations in the same distinctive style that defines his live work: soft, penciled edges; a splash of color here and there; and a knack for capturing human peculiarities, such as a trademark gesture or a clever smile.
The resulting sketches, which SCOTUSblog published throughout the semester (and all of which are reproduced below), give a behind-the-scenes look at how some of the country’s best appeal lawyers have adapted to the new normal. Perhaps, as a microcosm, they also represent the diversity of work-from-home environments in which so many members of the legal community have found themselves this year.
Lien was initially skeptical that the remotely created sketches would shed new light, but he quickly changed his mind.
“I think there really is a bit more insight into the whole process,” he said. “You know, it’s not obscured by courtroom decorum.”
Lien’s work shows the multitude of approaches proponents use to argument over the phone. Some are at a lectern. Others sit at a desk. Some are wearing suits. Others dress comfortably. Most use a speakerphone. Some use headsets. At least one of them held the phone right to his ear.
André Bélanger, who argued against Vannoy in Edwards earlier this month, set up the closest simulation of a live argument: He stood in front of his lectern in a suit and tie with large pictures of all nine judges.
At the other end of the formality spectrum, Ramzi Kassem argued against Tanvir in Tanzin in October over a desk strewn with paper in a hoodie-sweatshirt. The informal atmosphere seemed to help him: on December 10, the court ruled unanimously in favor of his clients.
“I want more hoodies,” said Lien.
“One thing I really love is all the little details,” he continued, referring to the bells and whistles and family photos that personalize many of the lawyers’ work-from-home setups. He’s always on the lookout for quirks that tell a story.
“I look at Professor Garner. That’s interesting, “Lien said, referring to Bryan Garner, the influential scholar and lexicographer who argued his first case against Duguid in the Supreme Court on December 8th on Facebook.” It just says it all. It just says professor, right? He’s at the desk. He actually has an old corded phone, you know, a landline. And he has a box of markers and Black’s Law Dictionary there. “
The sketches also show an omnipresent reminder of the times we are in. “One thing I look for in a lot of them is the mask that they don’t wear but that is on the desk,” he said. Lien sketched the Louisiana Attorney General Elizabeth Murrill, who wrote in Edwards V. Vannoy faced Bélanger and sat next to a man in a blue medical mask at her desk.
Will we ever see a working sketch of one of the judges from home? “I don’t think you will,” Lien said. “It sounds like they aren’t sending photos.” Until this policy changes, supporters’ sketches must suffice.
Here is the full collection of Lien’s sketches for the term so far:
Katie Barlow and James Romoser, How a Seasoned Sketch Artist Provides Insight into Oral Confrontation in the Work-from-Home Era,
SCOTUSblog (December 30, 2020, 12:00 p.m.), https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/12/how-a-veteran-sketch-artist-offers-a-peek-into-oral-arguments-in – the-work-from-home-era /