For government lawyer Verrilli, tough week on healthcare case

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Although his arguments in support of the healthcare law in the Supreme Court are over, and the nine justices will cast their initial votes in secret Friday, the public grilling of Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon.

Verrilli, an accomplished lawyer who this week became known for his frequent pauses, awkward noises and lengthy water breaks during his defense of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, has been widely criticized for what some deemed a sub-par performance in the nation’s highest court.

CNN legal analyst Jeffery Toobin set the tone on the first day of testimony on Monday, calling Verrilli’s oral arguments “a train wreck for the Obama administration” shortly after the proceedings had ended.


The Republican National Committee already has released an ad mocking Verrilli. The ad, titled “ObamaCare: It’s a Tough Sell” runs heavily doctored audio of Verrilli’s opening statements in a 36-second spot, which you can watch below.

Liberals have been equally harsh, with Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer saying it “may go down as one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the court.”

Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA, offered The Times his own analysis of the solicitor general’s performance. “Verrilli did an OK job but I’m sure many supporters of President Obama‘s healthcare reform were a little disappointed with his advocacy. He had very good answers to key questions but often phrased them inartfully,” Winkler said.

That’s not to say that Verrilli is without supporters. Tom Goldstein, publisher of the renowned SCOTUSblog and a Supreme Court lawyer, stepped in to defend him.

“There are sides of cases that are easier to argue and sides of cases that have better bumper-sticker answers, which is what the plaintiffs have here,” Goldstein said after Monday’s proceedings. “If the government loses, it’s going to lose because of its case. Don Verrilli did a fine job.”

The White House counsel released a statement on Wednesday morning after Verrilli’s time in the court’s spotlight, calling him an “extraordinarily talented advocate who ably and skillfully represented the U.S. before the court.”


Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest echoed those remarks, saying, “We’ve had complete confidence in his performance before the Supreme Court,” when pressed on the administration’s feelings about Verrilli’s arguments before the bench Wednesday.

Even Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chair – who has a notorious gaffe in his own background – offered advice on how Verrilli can move forward.

“I’d just ignore the whole thing,” Dean said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” He’s a very competent lawyer. He doesn’t have to worry about the press because the press has nothing to do with whether he keeps his job or not. I’d just forget about it. Laugh at it.”

And it must be noted that by the time all of the dust has settled, it’s not those in the media or those watching in the courtroom who will decide Verrilli’s ultimate legacy on the healthcare debate, but the nine justices making the decision on whether his argument – and more importantly, the government’s case – was sufficient to uphold the healthcare law.