Health-care ruling vindicates solicitor general Verrilli


In this courtroom illustration, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli (R) speaks to Justice Antonin Scalia (L), Chief Justice John Roberts (C) and Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 27, 2012. (STRINGER/REUTERS)
June 28, 2012

He “fumbled” on immigration and probably “blew the case” for health care, many legal analysts asserted after Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. made his oral arguments in March before the Supreme Court.

CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin back then called Verrilli’s performance “a train wreck” and “maybe even a plane wreck.” On Thursday morning, Toobin acknowledged he was “eating a bit of crow.” And Verrilli was leaving the Supreme Court with a big win in his pocket, with a 5-4 ruling that upheld the Obama administration’s signal legislative achievement.

At the White House, President Obama hugged White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, then called Verrilli to congratulate him.

It was the second victory of the week for the solicitor general, who was sworn in a year ago. On Monday, the court struck down most of the Arizona immigration law in a decision that reasserted the federal government’s primacy.

By fining individuals if they were to refuse to buy health insurance, Verrilli had argued in briefs and before the court, Congress was within its rights as a taxing authority. In his opinion Thursday, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. appeared to have expanded on that argument in upholding the mandate’s constitutionality.

The rumors of the law’s death had been greatly exaggerated. The predictive analysts and pre-buttal political operatives had been shamed into silence, at least momentarily.

And a goat of the health-care debate suddenly became a hero.

Verrilli is a low-key, serious and deliberate attorney, say those who know him, and a passionate competitor who is known to be emotional. When NPR’s Nina Totenberg asked him what made him cry, he said, “almost anything, actually . . . even a stupid movie or television show.”

That display did not happen Thursday in the court. And if there was any gloating or glee when he returned to his offices, such information was as privately held as the justices’ discussions on his arguments. A request for reaction was met in the Justice Department with a polite, “Sorry, we are declining comment. Thanks.”

Verrilli is about to go on vacation, a friend said — to New Hampshire, where presidential candidate Mitt Romney is about to start his vacation as well.

And Friday, he can celebrate his 55th birthday, the Supreme Court’s term behind him.

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