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Courtroom artists draw from imagination as the US Supreme Court moves oral arguments online

Scotus hears oral arguments by phone. Courtesy of Art Lien

As the Supreme Court of the United States (Scotus) moves its oral arguments from the courtroom to a dial-in audio stream for the first time ever amid the coronavirus lockdown, court-appointed artists are being left with little to draw from but their imaginations. The Washington, DC-based courtroom artist Art Lien, who has been sketching high-profile court scenes since the 1970s due to the Scotus ban on photography while it is in session, is skilled at capturing even the slightest tell-tale look between justices like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John G. Roberts as they hear cases. Now, as Trump’s lawyers argue against the release of the president’s tax returns over the phone to the Bench, Lien tells Bloomberg Law that there is “a lot missing when you can’t see it”. Fellow courtroom veteran William Hennessy also says the slightest turn of a head, facial tick or eye roll offers a lot of insight to how a justice is weighing an issue. These details, however, are all lost in the new verdict-by-phone set-up. Since media outlets and archives may require illustrations of these landmark legal decisions, however, both artists are continuing to sketch what they hear—which sometimes includes the errant toilet flush.