Law & Courts Photo Essay

Sketches of History at the U.S. Supreme Court

By Education Week Photo Staff — July 02, 2015 1 min read
Spectators wait in line outside the U.S. Supreme Court. Approximately 50 seats are reserved inside the court for the public to witness proceedings.

Courtroom artist Art Lien sketched history in the making during the recently completed term of the United States Supreme Court. Lien reflects on his 38-year career, and shares some of the historic cases, and his personal favorites, from this past term.

Lawyer John J. Bursch, center, presents the case against gay marriage in April as the court hears arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges.

I got my start sketching courtrooms when Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel went on trial in 1977 for mail fraud and racketeering charges. I had just graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art and was otherwise employed painting houses, tarring roofs, and laying sod. After the Mandel trial I contacted the national networks in Washington, and the rest as they say, is history.

The scene outside the court before the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was announced.
Spectators in the court react as Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers the majority decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that the U.S. Constitution’s due process and equal-protection clauses require every state to license same-sex marriages.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke was the first big Supreme Court case that I sketched back in 1977, and I had only the vaguest idea of what it was all about. Since then I’ve learned a lot, and my drawings, I hope, have improved as well.

Chief Justice John Roberts, center, delivers the majority opinion in King v. Burwell that upheld the nationwide tax subsidies underpinning the Affordable Care Act.
Justice Samuel Alito delivers the majority opinion in Ohio v. Clark that a child’s statement to his teachers about physical abuse at home that was introduced at trial without the testimony of the child did not violate the constitutional right of the accused to confront witnesses against him.
Justice Stephen Breyer delivers the majority opinion in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans that held that Texas can limit the content on state license plates because they are state property and not the equivalent of bumper stickers.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivers the majority opinion in Brumfield v Cain, that held that Kevan Brumfield, who was convicted in 1993 for killing a police officer in Louisiana, is entitled to have a new hearing to determine if he is mentally disabled, making him ineligible for the death penalty.
Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers the majority opinion in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project Inc., that federal housing laws prohibit seemingly neutral practices that harm minorities, even without proof of intentional discrimination.
Lawyer John P. Elwood argues the case for the petitioners in Elonis v. United States. In its subsequent ruling, the court reversed the federal conviction of Anthony Elonis, who had made threats on Facebook that included rap-lyric-style musings about shooting up an elementary school.

Thirty-eight years is a long time to spend sketching the same courtroom. Not much changes there. The curtains are draped differently, and the once vertical flags flanking the bench are now canted forward. The seating order on the bench changes whenever a new justice joins the Court, but other than that, it’s the same courtroom. I have found ways though, to keep it new, to look at it with fresh eyes. One way is to change media from time to time. Lately I’ve switched to pencil and watercolor. It’s so simple and fast, I love it. A couple years ago I started covering more arguments, not just the big ones. That has allowed me to loosen up and try new things. I have to say, the Supreme Court has been very, very good to me.

Cameras line the front steps of the Court on the day the court ruled in King v. Burwell, validating nationwide tax subsidies that support the Affordable Care Act.

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A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.

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