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Drawing the Line

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WORLD Radio - Drawing the Line

A famous courtroom artist tells the little-known aspects of his craft, beyond the colorful sketches that you can see.


WILLIAM HENNESSY, ARTIST: The way I generally would work is something like that, and then quickly throw in some face color.

SOUND: HENNESSY SKETCHING

And then hit with highlights.

MARY REICHARD, COHOST: Bill Hennessy is a courtroom artist. In many jurisdictions, cameras aren’t permitted in courtrooms. The Supreme Court, for example. So news media often rely on sketch artists like Hennessy to illustrate the courtroom proceedings.

Hennessy uses a mixed medium of colored pencil pastel and watercolor. And he says Chief Justice John Roberts … isn’t an easy assignment.

HENNESSY: Well, I mean, he’s a tough one, too. He’s kind of a handsome guy. You know, you’ve got to get it right. You’re trying to capture that moment and that expression and that exchange, but you’ve also got to get their likeness.

Details matter. And change over time. Like whether to draw Justice Neil Gorsuch wearing a pair of glasses … or not.

HENNESSY: When Gorsuch first started … he put them on very briefly to do something. He took them off. And that’s pretty common when people first get bifocals. They put them on enough to look at a document and then take them back off. And now they’re all pretty much wearing bifocals.

Justice Samuel Alito.

HENNESSY: Alito…he is such a serious guy and lots of times comes across as sort of scowling.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

HENNESSY: She has this interesting way she tilts her head when she’s listening.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh has a demeanor that shows up when he’s especially interested in a legal argument.

HENNESSY: He just has an interesting kind of face. I was going to say pouty face. But he’s just very serious, intense, he’s listening intensely.

Hennessy says Justice Elena Kagan does a great job engaging with the lawyers arguing before the court. And that her physical appearance has changed the most over the years.

HENNESSY:  I think her hair has changed. I think she’s changed her look a bit.

MR: It’s longer now.

Before the COVID pandemic, Justice Clarence Thomas didn’t say much during oral argument. Almost nothing. Only an occasional question over the years.

HENNESSY: Thomas, for the longest time, would lean back and sort of close his eyes. And everyone had this idea that, you know, he wasn’t listening. But that was the way he listened.

JR: When the Supreme Court resorted to Zoom for oral argument during the pandemic shutdown, the court changed its protocols. Instead of justices tossing out questions at their whim, the justices took turns by order of seniority. Those new protocols meant Justice Thomas took a turn participating. He’s said in interviews that felt much more polite than the interrupting style of the past.

So these days, instead of sitting on the bench quietly, he asks strong, reasoned questions. So those closed eyes meant … concentrating!

HENNESSY: That was the way he listened. … You’ve got to be careful making assumptions.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor is outwardly expressive. Hennessy remembers seeing her do an eye roll once when the late Justice Antonin Scalia voiced an opinion during an argument.

And Hennessy gives Justice Stephen Breyer a professor look. His expression is pleasant, curious, and instructive.

This coming October, when the next term starts, we’ll see what he notices as he draws the newest justice on the bench, Ketanji Brown Jackson.

HENNESSY: I enjoy going to the Supreme Court. It’s but it’s—I stress every time because it’s so heavy. Always. It’s never a breeze. You just feel the weight of it every time you go in there. Gotta get this right. Gotta get it right. There’s something just really weighty and heavy and serious about going to the Supreme Court.

THEME MUSIC

I Clarence Thomas...I Sonya Sotomayor...I Steven Breyer, I Amy Coney Barrett…do solemnly swear, I Brett M. Kavanaugh do solemnly swear, do solemnly swear, do solemnly swear, that I will administer justice, without respect to persons, that I will support and defend the constitution of the United States, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I’m about to enter, so help me God…[APPLAUSE]

MR: Welcome to Legal Docket, I’m Mary Reichard.

JR: And I’m Jenny Rough. This podcast is from the creative team at WORLD Radio.

MARSHALL: The honorable the Chief Justice and the associate justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!

JR: Come with us inside the world of the Supreme Court as we talk to the people involved. And think deeply about the most recent term’s disputes and decisions.

MARSHALL: All persons having business before the honorable Supreme Court...

MR: Today, a profile of a courtroom artist.

MARSHALL: God save the United States and this honorable court.

[UNDERWRITING BREAK] Support for the Legal Docket podcast comes from listeners like you. Additional support comes from Samaritan ministries, a biblical and affordable solution to healthcare, connecting more than 280,000 Christians across the nation who help pay one another’s medical bills. More at Samaritan Ministries.org /worldpodcasts.

MR: Legal Docket devotes most episodes to covering recent Supreme Court cases and opinions. Today, we thought we’d take a step back and hear from a man who has spent a lot of time at the Supreme Court, and a lot of other courts. A man who likes to draw!

HENNESSY:  I mean, that’s just my nature. So I sketch pretty much anything and everything pretty much all the time. [laughs]

JR: Bill Hennessy says his job as a courtroom artist is a great conversation starter.

HENNESSY: People like art. People are cautious I think sometimes around reporters, thinking they’re going to be quoted for something that they didn’t intend to be quoted. But when you say you’re an artist, “Oooh, really? Oh, that’s great! I love the stuff you do.” So it tends to be, sort of, if anything, an ice-breaker.

MR: Hennessy lives in Northern Virginia, about 40 miles from the hustle and bustle of D.C. Jenny and I visited him one Friday afternoon this past July. The drive takes us along windy, scenic roads. Past hiking trailheads and local wineries.

JR: We pull into a gravel driveway and Hennessy greets us with a handshake and a smile. He’s tall. Sixty-four years old. And has a warm personality. His house sits on 22 acres, and overlooks Goose Creek, a scenic river in Virginia. He and his wife raised seven kids there. He leads us to a private, enclosed structure next to his house.

HENNESSY: C’mon in. So this is the studio.

MR: Hennessy has been drawing court scenes for 42 years. Most of his work happens in the actual courtroom, as the case is unfolding. Not in his studio. But his studio houses all his originals. He estimates 10,000 sketches. And the day we visit, he shows us the tools he brings to court with him. A large sketchpad, of course.

HENNESSY: So I have my markers. My prisma pencils, are more of a wax, almost like a fancy crayon. They’re very high quality, good quality drawing material. And then pastels, pastels are all across the top here.

JR: So that looks like chalk, it’s not chalk?

HENNESSY: It’s pastel chalk. A water based chalk. These are awesome markers, that are these pens that have the little reservoir of water in them. … So you don’t have to be using a little water container. And um, that’s pretty much it.

MR: I asked him if he had an “A-ha! moment.” One where he knew he was an artist. For that, he credits his parents. Hennessy moved around as he grew up. His dad served in the Navy. His mom raised eight kids.

HENNESSY: So my mom was a hardworking mom, stay-at-home mom...

MR: She considered art school, but opted not to go so she could raise her family.

HENNESSY: But interestingly, she always drew. So I paid attention to what she was doing. And I learned from her, that’s where —and it turns out my father too, he drew a lot of things on the ship when he was out at sea. We found all these notebooks that he drew quite a bit. So it was in the genes. I’ve drawn for as long as I can remember.

JR: Hennessy went to art school at Rizzy, the Rhode Island School of Design. His interest in courthouse art came about in an unexpected way.

HENNESSY: When I was an undergrad at Rizzy, the courthouse was right next door. And for whatever reason, I remember thinking: “Hey, the courthouses are open to the public. I’m going to go and listen to a court case.” And I did.

JR: He didn’t draw anything. But the case deeply affected him.

HENNESSY: She left a lot of tell-tale evidence. She was being abducted, and she knew it, and she couldn’t—it was really, it was terrifying.

MR: And that’s how he got his start. Local courts, state courts. Observing. Listening. Drawing. Eventually, he began to cover the federal courts too, including the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall was on the bench when Hennessy started.

Back to oral arguments. Hennessy says they can get animated.

HENNESSY: I like to really get the back and forth between the justices and arguing counsel. So, I’m more of a manic, scratchy pastel, and I’m trying—I like to catch the action.

MR: Hennessy sits in the press area of the Supreme Court when he sketches, along with the journalists. A tight space. If you’re standing at the lectern facing the justices, the press area is on the left. A few benches, and a group of alcoves behind them. Depending on the seat, a pillar might block your view. Those obstacles can bring challenges. Like when Ruth Bader Ginsburg served.

HENNESSY: She was so tiny, that when she was behind the bench lots of times you'd just hear her voice and the top of her head maybe.

JR: Another obstacle: People move around a lot. How does Hennessy remember the correct body language? Was it the right arm crossed on top of the left … or the other way around?

Interestingly, he said that almost every person has four or five postures that they continually return to. So it helps to learn what those are. He usually starts with a rough layout. And then to remember little details, like positions and expressions, he has a process.

HENNESSY: Obviously you can't photograph it as an artist. So you sort of like gather this series of moments to put this into a drawing.

JR: He makes nicks along the edges of his sketchpad to clue himself in—writes himself notes in sort of a shorthand. It’s called gesture sketching. And he always tries to capture that perfect moment in each case that’s critical to telling the story.  He remembers a particular criminal case:

HENNESSY: A case where the prosecutor gestured like he was holding a rifle. Boom. That's that's the sketch.

MR: Another time he stood outside the grand jury room during the Monica Lewinsky saga. A friend of Monica’s who didn’t like the media saw Hennessy standing in a little pack of reporters. 

HENNESSY: She went and stood at the elevator doors. Soon as the elevator doors opened, she stuck her tongue out and jumped on the elevator.

MR: And you caught that?

HENNESSY: Yeah, it was too good not to draw.

JR: So, he captured her on paper with fast energy: blonde hair; a swipe of color that matched the hue of her clothes.

An image like that, he says, is like a fading photograph: there and then gone.

MR: Not long ago, he covered former Trump White House advisor Peter Navarro’s criminal contempt charge for defying a subpoena related to the January 6 probe. Now, in cases like that, the defendant usually walks into the courtroom with his lawyers … off the streets.

HENNESSY: He had been locked up. I didn’t realize that and that was a real shocker. He actually got arrested and so before the hearing even started the marshal held out an envelope of his belongings. And he was like taking his belongings out of the envelope in the courtroom. I was like, wow. So images like that really kind of tell the story sometimes.

MR: Another one of his goals: be objective.

HENNESSY: I try to stay out of the politics of it. And. I really do. Even including the way I draw and what I draw. I just try to be objective. That’s my goal.

MR: Draw it as he sees it.

HENNESSY: So it's a challenge--trying to capture the moment and be accurate. Accuracy is one thing I've certainly been drilled into me over the years is you know, there's this etiquette, this ethical responsibility as an artist is just like a journalist. You got to get it right. And don't embellish. Don't get it wrong. And if you didn't see it, don't draw it.

JR: He remembers the day he attended the first hearing of the D.C. snipers. Those were a series of shootings by a man and a boy for three weeks in October 2002. No press allowed in the courtroom.

HENNESSY: And it drove me crazy. And the door opened for a second and the door closed and I said I saw them, I saw them. I'm sure of it. But I didn't want to be wrong. And I really was so tempted to sketch that and put it out, but I thought, I cannot risk being wrong. So I waited till the next hearing and it was like, I knew it! I was right!

JR: When he sketches, he hears a few requests all the time: Can you make me look handsome? Thinner? Give me more hair? 

MR: But his favorite line?

HENNESSY: But this one guy, as he's called to the stand, and I'm up, you know, in the aisle seat looking, waiting for him to take the stand. He stops and he taps me on the shoulder and says, “Can you make me look credible?” And then he walked off. And I thought, now that's an original! That was really good. Can you make me look credible?

JR: Mary, you and I have legal minds and work as writers, with letters and words. Neither of us has the gift of painting or drawing or sketching. But I do remember an artist once made a remark that stuck with me. She said the key to art is you don’t look down at the page, you look at the person or object you are drawing.

HENNESSY: It's absolutely true. It's almost amazing, if you try this. Set your your pen or pencil down at one point on what you're looking at. And don't even look up. Let your eye guide. Now your proportion will be thrown off. But you'll be amazed at how much of the character of what you're actually looking at, you've captured by not looking at what you're doing and paying attention to what you're looking at.

MR: You capture the character of who you’re drawing by fixing your eyes on the other person, not yourself.

JR: Seems like there’s a life lesson in there—more so than just for artists!

MR: Well, when Hennessy draws people, he’s constantly looking to capture emotion. A few weeks before we visited Hennessy in his studio, a suspect had been arrested for threatening Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

HENNESSY: He was so animated in his hearing the other day, that I just kept doing another image, another image, another image. Because he was so animated. I couldn’t just settle on one sketch. He was just clearly emotionally distressed. And would like hold his head, he would drop his head, he would, you know, just was sort of all over the table. He didn't want to look up for a while then when he did, when asked questions, he stood. He did listen to the judge but he had a very strange demeanor.

JR: Hennessy sketched as much as he could as fast as he could. Ended up with multiple sketches. At the lower court level, things move at all sorts of different paces. So it can be hard to predict how much time he’ll have to sketch.

HENNESSY:  An arraignment, it’s you know, 20 minutes. Preliminary hearing, you know, that could be anywhere up to a couple hours, some have gone more than a day. And then a trial could go, you know, a day to two months.

MR: But at the Supreme Court, he can usually rely on a predictable pattern. One lawyer speaks, then the next. Rebuttal at the end. Oral arguments typically last one hour. First, he sketches what he calls the establishment shot, or the wide shot.

HENNESSY: Usually from the Supreme Court, that's that first council and a full bench. And that's a big drawing, that's a lot of work. But you need that initially. And then if there's like, you know, a specific, you know, back and forth between counsel on one or two justices, then that might be a separate sketch.

MR: And then the counsel for the opposing party and the key question-ers from the bench.

JR: Hang around the Supreme Court as much as Hennessy does and you’re bound to meet a justice or two. He remembers being in the building when Justice Lewis Powell … walked right by!

HENNESSY: He came walking down the hall to the press room and I saw him in the hall and said hi and all that. And then I came I come to find out he was coming in to announce that he was retiring to the to the press. Neat things like that. And that’s really a unique moment. It’s pretty cool.

JR: And he told us this fun story, too. Once, before the Chief Justice was the Chief Justice, Hennessy covered a Microsoft antitrust case.

HENNESSY: And the attorney who handled the appeal for the government … was a guy named John Roberts.

MR: Hennessy drew a sketch of the appeal. When a case is on appeal from a lower court decision, a panel of judges ask the lawyers a whole bunch of questions. Much like at the Supreme Court. Well, the lower court had likened Bill Gates to a drug kingpin. And the panel of appellate judges kept asking why.

HENNESSY: So they were all peppering the government attorney, who was John Roberts, with, you know, why did the judge do this? Why did he? And finally, he threw his hands up and said, “I don’t know.. I wish we knew.” And I thought, that’s my drawing. His hands in the air saying he doesn’t know. … So that’s what I drew…

JR: Years later, Hennessy was flipping through his sketches and realized that the lawyer he’d drawn with his hands in the air was now Chief Justice John Roberts. At a reception, Hennessy worked up the nerve to talk with Roberts and tell him that story. The Chief remembered the moment!

MR: Back in May 2022, he attended the dedication of a portrait of the late Justice John Paul Stevens. He didn’t draw the portrait, he was just there. Justice Alito was also there.

HENNESSY: Alito looked so, um, really irritated. … He looked bothered. The next day they announced the leak!

MR: The leak… meaning the leak of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.

HENNESSY: He looked so upset. So bothered. And I’m convinced. I can’t prove it. But I’m convinced that’s what was going on there.

MR: We’ll be covering the Dobbs case—and the little known backstory behind it—in two weeks.

JR: Speaking of backstory—backstory gives a bigger, more complete picture. And Hennessy says his work as a courtroom artist has done just that. Given him an education about the law and how it works.

HENNESSY: I’ve learned enough that I can have a conversation. It does help me understand, where a lot of people don’t. You know, they get upset about something they hear in the news, and it’s like, guys, you know, you’ve got to hear the whole case, and you’ve got to understand, the jury’s listening they’re actually listening to the evidence that’s admitted and they're listening to the law that’s been explained to them by the judge. So it’s helpful that way because everybody gets very emotional about it.

MR: Watching oral arguments reminds him why federalism matters.

HENNESSY: But I remember my middle school government teacher talking about the importance that in the Constitution, where rights not specifically designated to the federal government, automatically go to the States. And I'm amazed how many times that comes up in the Supreme Court argument. And it's like, wow, this is really funny. I actually learned stuff that's applicable.

And his work has given him an appreciation of the blessings of living in this country.

HENNESSY: I think our justice system is excellent. I really think highly of our juries and the challenges they have. And I've watched juries come out, you know, sobbing, and deliver a verdict. Because it hurts, it's hard to judge another but they have to, and they don't take it lightly. So I think our system works well. I really tell people, you know, if you really question it, if you think it's unfair, go in a courtroom. And watch how this system is really there to protect the rights of the individual.

JR: It’s almost cliche to say the life of an artist isn’t easy. Especially when working as an independent, like Hennessy.

MR: And Hennessy says it’s even harder today. We’re in the digital age.

HENNESSY: People want to see photographs, they want to see video, even they'd rather see videos and photographs, they want the moving image.

Plus, the media industry has gone through major budget cuts.

HENNESSY: And then along comes the internet. That changed everything.

Free content on the internet caused even more economic difficulty.

HENNESSY: It was really tough.So I'm trying to navigate that as an independent. Not to say I haven't enjoyed it. It's been fascinating. It's been awesome. But it's been a challenge.

MR: Hennessy hopes his form of art will be preserved. We do, too. 

THEME

MR: Legal Docket is produced by the creative team at WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

JR: And I’m Jenny Rough.

MR: We’re the hosts each week and collaborated on writing this script. Our script editors are Nick Eicher and Paul Butler, who is also our producer. Lillian Hamman provided audio support.

JR: We’d like to give special thanks to Bill Hennessy, for welcoming us to his art studio and talking with us for today’s episode.

MR: We are at around 1,300 ratings on iTunes, but we know a lot more listen than that! So if you hear this and haven’t yet left a review, we hope you will do it. It helps others find us and spreads the word about this researched and produced podcast.

Thank you!


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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