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A Supreme Court artist retires after 45 years documenting judicial history up close

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Visual journalist Art Lien says Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (center top) was known for being hard to capture on paper.

Art Lien, one of the most celebrated courtroom artists of his time, retired this summer after 45 years sketching hearings and decisions at the Supreme Court. He worked first for CBS and, later, for NBC and SCOTUSblog.

As the Supreme Court opened its session this fall — without him in attendance — NPR interviewed Lien about his career as a visual journalist. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you wind up with this specialty?

Well, I was pretty aimless as a young man and went to art school because it just seemed like the thing to do. And once I graduated, I really didn't know what I was going to do. What can you do with a fine arts degree? And our governor in Maryland, Gov. [Marvin] Mandel, was going on trial, and a local station was looking for somebody to sketch it. And so I went to the newsroom. I tried out. I sketched some people the newsroom. And I got the job.

What about the Supreme Court justices? Who had an especially difficult face to capture?

Well, I think the most difficult was with Sandra Day O'Connor. And I think most of my colleagues, the other sketch artists, would say the same because she was an attractive woman. And, you know, there just wasn't a big nose or big ears or wrinkles to hold on to. [Anthony] Kennedy was also not so easy, again, because he had no real outstanding features.

How do you sketch a moment from a Supreme Court argument? How quickly do you have to capture it?

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.

Do you have any strong feelings about whether cameras should be in the courtroom?

I've had evolving opinions about that. But now that I can speak freely, I absolutely do believe that cameras belong in the Supreme Court. And I thought that during this, the pandemic, when everything was shut down, would have been the ideal time. But, of course, as long as there are justices that oppose it, I don't think it's going to change.

What would you like American citizens to know about the Supreme Court that you feel fortunate to have learned?

I just think that the court can do great things, that it has in the past. And I think it will again, but it just doesn't seem to be separate from the political fray these days. It's almost as if nobody believes that these justices, when they get on the bench, can leave their politics aside. And what I will say, and what I've seen over and over, the justices come on, and after a few years, they become independent. They shift towards the middle. And I've seen that happen over and over again.

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