A Conversation with Former Solicitor General Don Verrilli

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Kassi Yukevich ’17 speaks with Former Solicitor General Don Verrilli

Sarah Grant, 1L

On March 2, Don Verrilli, Solicitor General of the United States from 2011-2016, spoke to students at an event co-sponsored by the American Constitution Society, the Women’s Law Association, and the HLS Democrats. Prior to his appointment by President Obama as Solicitor General, Mr. Verrilli served as the Associate Deputy United States Attorney General and in the White House Counsel’s Office as Deputy Counsel to the President. Before joining the government, he was a litigation partner at Jenner & Block LLP in Washington, DC and argued a dozen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mr. Verrilli opened the discussion by talking about his background in private practice, where he developed a reputation as one of the nation’s premier appellate advocates, and his path to the Solicitor General’s Office. Mr. Verrilli said that it was unusual for someone to move from the White House Counsel’s Office to the Solicitor General position, but that it was beneficial in his case because he personally knew and had the trust of the President and Attorney General. As a result, he was given a great deal of freedom in running the office and deciding which cases to take up. He knew on certain high-profile, intensely political cases, however, like those leading to the eventual recognition of same-sex marriage rights, that the decision on how to proceed had to be President Obama’s to make.

On the topic of marriage equality, Mr. Verrilli talked about reading the mood of the public and of the Supreme Court justices, particularly Justice Kennedy, when deciding which cases to support and in what way. He also discussed meeting with President Obama in the lead-up to Obergefell to decide how to argue the case, in light of the fact that the Due Process arguments made in previous cases did not seem to resonate strongly with the justices. Out of that meeting came the approach that Mr. Verrilli successfully adopted at oral argument, which focused on the human element of marriage equality and stressed the importance of empathy and compassion, and the freedom to love.

In response to questions from students, Mr. Verrilli discussed his approach to oral argument and how it evolved as he became more comfortable in the position of Solicitor General. He started out too conservative and deferential, he said, and was less persuasive as a result. Eventually, he came to embrace the more forceful style of his days in private practice. The opposition in politically-charged cases often played to the justices’ emotions both in the briefs and at oral argument, and to win Mr. Verrilli needed to be able to match them rhetorically as well as on the law. The best preparation, he said, was to go through rounds and rounds of moots beforehand with staff attorneys from the Solicitor General’s Office and from elsewhere in government. They almost always anticipated the precise questions the justices would ask, so he rarely faced a question in oral argument for which he had not prepared.

The event concluded after nearly 90 minutes of Q&A, and was a great opportunity for students to learn more about the work of the Solicitor General’s Office, and the judicial setbacks and landmark successes of the Obama Administration in pursuing a progressive agenda.

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