For a nation gripped by gay marriage hearings at the Supreme Court this week, the information arrived second hand. There were long transcripts. There was audio. There were talking heads on CNN, and talk about what they were talking about. And there were still many questions to be answered ahead of rulings in June. There were, after all, only about 400 people allowed inside. No cameras. No cellphone photos. No electronic devices. But courtroom sketch artist Arthur Lien is one of the few people who can offer a true window into the closed-door hearings of the nation's high tribunal, the man whose brush can paint emotion onto the most emotionless figures in the land. Through Lien this week, we've seen what Sonia Sotomayor looks like when Vicki Jackson makes her case, and what Charles Cooper looks like when he's arguing against gay marriage. For Lien, however, the faces of the Supreme Court is nothing new: he's been at this game for 30 some years, he told The Atlantic Wire after arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act wound down Wednesday.
"One of the hard things about the Supreme Court," explained Lien, "is trying to find something interesting, a new way of looking at it."
Lien began to sketch after graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art, initially covering the second trial of Governor Marvin Mandel. He made it to D.C., where sketch artists were a hot commodity, given the lack of cameras in Congress. He freelanced for CBS and then began working for NBC, the network he's been with ever since. For those interested in a bit of trivia, he's also played a sketch artist on The Wire.
The Supreme Court, Lien explained, is not a very "emotional" place, and Lien knows emotion from having covered events like the Sandusky trial. He said that "at the most" during Wednesday's 115-minute DOMA arguments there was a gasp in the courtroom after Justice Elena Kagan called out attorney Paul Clement by reading from the Congressional record on DOMA, including a line about "moral disapproval of homosexuality." Lien later recreated that moment by photoshopping sketches of Kagan and Clement together. "A lot of times you hear this stuff," Lien said, "and by the time you look up it's over."
So what does one of the privileged few sketch artists at the Supreme Court look for, considering the place is big on dramatic testimony and low on dramatic visuals? "What I'm really looking for more than anything is the interaction between the lawyer and the justices," Lien said. He explained he watches for moments like when Antonin Scalia leans on a lawyer, or like when during last year's healthcare hearing, Stephen Breyer held up the Affordable Care Act. But Lien's attention isn't just limited to justices. At the Shelby County Voting Rights Act hearing this year he sketched civil rights leaders in the audience.
Lien also tries to build compositions. During Tuesday's Prop 8 hearing, and the recent Shelby County case, he used a scale model of the courthouse to help him construct a bird's eye view of the room. Last year, he used markers. This year, he is using watercolors.
But when it comes to the justices, Lien does have favorites—you know, to draw.
"The one I like the most is Sotomayor," he explained. "Of course, she sits closest to me on the side of the bench. She's great to draw. She's got lots of hair and she's always got big earrings and bangles."
Sotomayor also tends to look for the press section. Lien likes Breyer, too, for his "body language." Kagan sits at the other side of the bench from Lien and has been giving him trouble, but the one he's had the hardest time with is Chief Justice John Roberts, partially because "he's young."
In his years at the court, Lien has finally begun to be able to follow the arguments after years of feeling lost in legalese.
"I'm feeling happy about that," he said.
See more of Lien's work at his blog. Below are some images via Reuters: