The Supreme Court began its new term on October 1, but this term will look a bit different than others over the past several decades.
That is because Arthur Lien, a courtroom sketch artist who has covered the Supreme Court for the past 45 years, retired at the conclusion of the prior term in June, SCOTUSblog reported.
Lien’s pencil sketches filled in with watercolors, intended as a form of journalism to capture the visuals of certain moments during oral arguments or the handing down of decisions, could nonetheless be considered works of art in their own right. He would likely disagree, though.
“I tend not to see myself as an artist at all,” he said. “I don’t think that’s my approach. Nor am I an editorial cartoonist. I’m more of a reporter. I’m reporting what I see. I’m trying to do it without injecting my own opinions.”
From art school to the courtroom
Lien first began sketching events and hearings at the Supreme Court in 1977 on behalf of CBS News, then moved on to NBC News a few years later and, in 2013, began to work for SCOTUSblog as well in addition to NBC.
In an interview with NPR, Lien revealed that his career as a courtroom sketch artist had not really been planned, but just sort of came about while searching for a job after graduating from art school when he ended up at a local news station in Baltimore, Maryland, which was gearing up to cover a trial involving that state’s governor, and impressed everybody with his sketches of the newsroom.
Asked how he completes his sketches so quickly, the artist told the outlet, “Really, a lot of it is drawing from memory. You try to anticipate what’s coming next, but there are always surprises. So it is memory. Also, I’ve simplified things since the beginning. When I first went in there, I had pastels and a large pad and all these other supplies. And now I simply go up there with a pencil and a pad, and that’s all.”
Courtroom sketches and special banner art
SCOTUSblog separately paid tribute to Lien with statements from several of his friends and colleagues from the past several decades, all of whom praised him for his dedication and masterful skill.
One element of his work that seemed particularly noteworthy in the various tributes were not his courtroom sketches, but rather the banners he created to adorn the top of the SCOTUSblog website, which were sometimes poignant and other times humorous and often with a nod to current events outside of the Supreme Court.
For example, whenever a Washington D.C.-area professional sports team would win a championship, Lien would portray the justices in uniforms as if they were players, and when the court closed during the pandemic and shifted to conference calls for hearings and meetings, he drew a banner that featured all of the justices on different types of phones that befit their personalities, with Chief Justice John Roberts working an old switchboard to keep everybody connected.
“The absolute best”
“Art’s daily sketches of events at the court have been a lively and useful record for reporters and for oral advocates who cherish having their appearances vividly rendered. For historians, they are an extraordinarily precious resource,” Clare Cushman, resident historian of the Supreme Court Historical Society, told SCOTUSblog. “That is because Art is able to fully capture both the look and feeling of being inside the courtroom or on the building’s premises at a precise moment in time.”
Pete Williams, a former SCOTUS correspondent for NBC, told the outlet of his friend and colleague, “He was an expert in a demanding and highly specialized art form, and he was liked and respected by his peers and the lawyers and judges he covered. He was, quite simply, the absolute best.”