POLITICS

Lawyer Who Helped Save Obamacare And Win Marriage Equality Is Stepping Down

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli has been at the forefront of many of the country's hottest legal disputes.
As solicitor general, Donald Verrilli won -- and lost -- a number of landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
As solicitor general, Donald Verrilli won -- and lost -- a number of landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Donald Verrilli, the administration lawyer whom President Barack Obama picked five years ago to serve as the nation's top advocate before the Supreme Court, is stepping down at the end of June, the White House announced Thursday.

As solicitor general for the United States -- a post he inherited from Elena Kagan, whom the president elevated to the Supreme Court in 2010 -- Verrilli was at the forefront of some of the country's most historic legal battles, including two major attacks on the Affordable Care Act.

He helped win those and other significant cases for the government, including the administration's refusal in 2013 to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which Verrilli argued had a discriminatory impact on LGBT people.  

"For five years, Solicitor General Don Verrilli has fought in our nation's highest court for a better future, winning landmark cases that moved America forward," Obama said Thursday in a statement.

Among other victories, the president referenced cases in which Verrilli argued and prevailed before the high court, such as key challenges to federal housing laws and the government's prerogatives in immigration enforcement.

"Don has been a dedicated public servant who has helped our nation live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all," Obama said. "I am grateful for his trusted counsel and friendship. And I wish Don and his family all the best in what comes next, including, hopefully, a well-deserved vacation."

President Barack Obama on June 28, 2012, the day he received news from Verrilli that the Supreme Court had ruled the Affordab
President Barack Obama on June 28, 2012, the day he received news from Verrilli that the Supreme Court had ruled the Affordable Care Act constitutional.

Verrilli appeared in nearly all the major cases the Supreme Court heard in its term that began in October -- including a multistate lawsuit against Obama's deferred deportation policies, a dispute between religious freedom and contraception access under the health care law, and a case that could curtail access to abortion rights.

Verrilli is officially stepping down from his role as the nation's 46th solicitor general on June 24, which means he may not be on the job when the high court rules on some of these closely watched cases. The court's last day of the term is scheduled for June 27.

The Solicitor General's Office, the appellate advocacy arm of the Department of Justice, is a little-known litigation machine that has an active role in Supreme Court and other appeals court cases in which the interests of the United States are at stake. 

Due to its voice in matters that could have nationwide reach, the justices often ask for the opinion of Verrilli's office when deciding whether to hear a case -- which may explain why the solicitor general is often referred to as the Supreme Court's 10th justice.

Just last week, the office responded to the court's invitation to share its views on five cases that aren't yet on the docket for its next term. Verrilli and his team also appeared in every case the justices heard in April and are planning to decide over the next several weeks. 

Attorney General Loretta Lynch called Verrilli "one of the most consequential Solicitors General in American history."

"Through these and many other cases -- and through his thoughtful counsel and principled advocacy -- Don has built a legacy of inclusion, expanding opportunities and civil rights for all Americans and moving our country forward," she said in a statement. "I could not be more proud to call him a colleague and a friend."

An artist's rendering of Verrilli delivering oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the second Supreme Court challenge to the Aff
An artist's rendering of Verrilli delivering oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the second Supreme Court challenge to the Affordable Care Act.

Verrilli's tenure was marked with a few stinging defeats, most notably in 2013 -- when the conservative wing of the Supreme Court scrapped a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Verrilli also received low marks from court watchers in 2012, when the Supreme Court heard NFIB v. Sebelius, the first serious challenge to Obamacare. During a multiday extravaganza, the justices heard from Verrilli and six other lawyers on whether the law's individual mandate and other provisions were constitutional.

Among other arguments, Verrilli was in charge of defending the law's Medicaid expansion, which the court ultimately struck down as unconstitutionally coercive against the states. But the Supreme Court upheld the rest of the law as constitutional, much to the surprise of Verrilli and many observers. 

Verrilli, who has maintained a distance from the press in his days as solicitor general, told Pennsylvania State University law school graduates last year what it takes to be a good advocate for a legal cause.

"It’s not about delivering a brilliant argument before the Supreme Court or a scintillating closing argument to the jury, or a Perry Mason-esque cross-examination that destroys a key witness,” he said. "None of that ultimately matters. Integrity is what ultimately matters."

Verrilli's successor will be Ian Gershengorn, the principal deputy solicitor general and a longtime government lawyer in the Obama administration, Lynch announced. 

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