Though courtroom drawings in the United States reportedly go back to the Salem Witch Trials, the idea of sketch artists in the courtroom has fluctuated in popularity within the judicial branch, at times tolerated, at other times banned, from the proceedings.
Courtroom artists are in no way affiliated with the legal system. They are usually freelance artists or may work for a news outlet or other media publication.
This art form exists to provide the public with a visual record of court proceedings that we otherwise would not have.
With the advent of modern photography came the debate on whether to allow cameras in the courtroom. Some courts have permitted them, though many jurisdictions, especially federal courts, ban them as being too intrusive.
In fact, Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure states that, “Except as otherwise provided by a statute or these rules, the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom.”
More recently, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has stated that: “There’s a concern (among justices) about the impact of television on the functioning of the institution. We’re going to be very careful before we do anything that might have an adverse impact.”
Thus, even in these days of Instagram, Periscope and the like, courtroom sketches are still the primary mode of reporting many judicial proceedings, giving the public a glimpse of the setting, mood and reactions of the various players in a trial. But they too can be banned or at least restricted by order of the judge, for example in cases involving minors, to protect jurors, or in other situations when the judge feels that such renderings could hurt the proceedings.
The Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress has been fortunate to obtain several significant collections of such drawings, making the Library’s holdings the most comprehensive in any American institution. The latest acquisition is the “Thomas V. Girardi Collection of Courtroom Illustration Drawings”. This collection contains 96 sketches from notable cases over the past five decades, such as the Charles Manson and O. J. Simpson trials. Included are works by Aggie Kenny, Bill Robles and Elizabeth Williams.
Your chance to see some of these works in person is coming soon. The Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress is launching an exhibit of courtroom illustrations next year. And the Law Library will have a hand in the display. Items from our collection will provide value-added content through copies of court decisions and briefs filed in some of the high profile cases that will be depicted.