Donald Verrilli, The Closer – The “Mariano Rivera of Supreme Court advocacy”?

September 30th, 2013

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli often takes many hits with his performance, but Ken Jost explains that in the end, Verrilli is a good closer.

 For the past two Supreme Court terms, the justices waited until their last day to issue rulings in the year’s most closely watched cases: the challenges to the Affordable Care Act last year and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) this year. In both cases, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli personally argued for the government, and in both cases the court ruled for the government — admittedly, by one-vote margins in both.

With a record like that, one would expect Verrilli to be hailed as the Mariano Rivera of Supreme Court advocacy: he closes well in the most important contests. But instead Verrilli has been getting bad notices in the world of Supreme Court watchers.

Despite any shortcomings at the lectern, Verrilli had a good win-loss record in the eight cases that he personally argued during the previous term. The court sided with the government in five, ruled against the government in two, and issued a no-decision of sorts in the other. A re-reading of the transcripts of those arguments shows Verrilli, at least in hindsight, to have been reasonably effective in setting out the government’s positions while fending off skeptical questions from one side of the bench or the other.

Ken also cites Unprecedented, which focuses on the undue bum wrap Verrilli got following NFIB v. Sebelius:

  A year earlier, Verrilli had been openly criticized and even mocked for what was seen as a fumbling defense of the Affordable Care Act. Yet the court upheld the law after Roberts accepted the tax power argument that Verrilli had insisted on keeping in the government’s briefs, according to Josh Blackman’s account of the case in his book Unprecedented. So court watchers may need to be cautious in grading Verrrilli’s arguments at least until the court has issued the only grade that matters.