“As you get closer to the argument, the tension rises,” Verrilli said in a recent interview in his corner office at the Justice Department. “But it’s a wonderful experience. I feel incredibly privileged to be here right now doing this. It’s amazing.”
The solicitor general is the government’s top appellate lawyer and the United States’ representative at the Supreme Court; the 54-year-old Verrilli’s predecessor is the court’s newest justice, Elena Kagan.
Verrilli is at the forefront of the Obama administration’s efforts to defend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and will argue all three days when the court begins its extraordinary examination of the law next Monday.
Arguing before the justices is nothing new for him. He has had 17 cases before the high court, five of them since he was confirmed as solicitor general in June, and is a part of the small world of lawyers immersed in the court.
After his undergraduate years at Yale and Columbia Law School, he served as a clerk to Justice William J. Brennan Jr. He was part of a team that helped prepare Justice Stephen G. Breyer for his confirmation hearings.
“I wouldn’t call myself a Supreme Court specialist,” Verrilli said. “Unlike some of the folks in the private sector who do Supreme Court work, my practice when I was in the private sector was always a mix of trial and appellate work.”
Verrilli handled First Amendment and telecommunications cases as a partner at Jenner and Block, and he is noted in part for his role in representing motion picture studios and music recording companies against makers of file-sharing software that the companies said induced stealing.
Verrilli represented 28 of the largest entertainment companies in
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster Ltd.,
which he won 9 to 0. Untold amounts of money were at stake in the case, and Verrilli learned how to please many different bosses.
Moot courts — in which Verrilli practiced the arguments he would make to the justices — were held in auditoriums to accommodate all of the companies’ lawyers, he said.
It was another Supreme Court case that Verrilli said had a more lasting effect on him.
Verrilli and his firm for more than 10 years represented Maryland death-row inmate Kevin Wiggins, who drowned 77-year-old Florence Lacs in her bathtub. Verrilli handled Wiggins’s appeal of his death sentence and uncovered evidence never presented to the jury of Wiggins’s horrific childhood, in which he suffered repeated physical and sexual abuse from his mother and the foster families with whom he later was sent to live.
The Supreme Court’s 7 to 2 decision in
Wiggins v. Smith
set aside Wiggins’s death sentence on the grounds that his right to effective counsel had been violated. The decision established new rules on what a lawyer must do to investigative a client’s background and present mitigating evidence.