U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli: Telling tales of life in the capital

U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. faces down the U.S. Supreme Court on a regular basis, representing the United States on any number of cases throughout the judicial term.

But when he came to Wilton Library on Thursday, May 22, he was with a welcoming hometown crowd as he greeted family, friends and former classmates. The genial Mr. Verrilli — who joked with Michael Kaelin that the proper way to address him is Gen. Verrilli — charmed a packed house in the Brubeck Room that overflowed into second-floor rooms where people watched on closed circuit TV, with lighthearted and serious stories of his long legal career. Mr. Kaelin, an attorney and chairman of the library’s board of trustees, engaged Mr. Verrilli in conversation from the Brubeck Room stage.

“How delighted I am to be here,” he said. “I have not lived here since 1975, but Wilton feels like home to me,” the Wilton High School graduate said, acknowledging a number of people in the audience. Among them were his parents, Donald and Rose Marie Verrilli, a former first selectman.

In his position, which was created in 1870 for the purpose of helping the attorney general, he represents the United States before the U.S. Supreme Court, “which means I represent all of you,” he said.

“It is an awesome responsibility and an awesome privilege.”

The most important part of his job, he said, is deciding what the position of the United States should be on the many cases that come before the Justice Department. “That’s what I spend most of my time on,” he said, adding that he can be overruled only by the attorney general or the president.

“Arguing cases is a very small part of the job.”

He explained that thousands of cases are litigated throughout the country that involve the government, and “we lose about 2,000 a year.”

Over the course of the year he reviews each of those lost cases, deciding whether they should be taken to the Court of Appeals and ultimately to the Supreme Court. His department will ask for Supreme Court review of only 10 to 15 cases.

He is assisted in this work by a staff of 21 career lawyers. Noting the amount of work those attorneys do on an $11-million budget, Mr. Verrilli said it is “the best bargain the American taxpayer gets.”

Mr. Verrilli acknowledged his job has had a higher profile than that of most previous solicitors general. “We’re in a very unusual place in history,” he said. “It is not usual for so many high-profile cases to come before the Supreme Court” in a short span of time. Some of those he has argued involve the Affordable Care Act, the Defense of Marriage Act and EPA rules regarding emission of gases that affect climate change.

“We’re at a time when a majority of the Supreme Court has a strong ideological perspective different from the president,” he said, adding that, “aside from the New Deal, this is probably the greatest amount of friction between the executive and judicial branches.”

Death row defense

Mr. Verrilli made a point of saying he believed he benefited from an excellent education at Wilton High School, after which he went on to graduate from Yale University and Columbia School of Law. He went on to clerk for J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and then U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr.

He went into private practice as a litigator specializing in telecommunications, media and the First Amendment. In that capacity, he argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court.

Five of those cases constituted pro bono work for inmates facing the death penalty. It is this work, he said, that he felt influenced his path to his current position, although not in an obvious way.

“If you came out of law school in the 80s and planned a career to be solicitor general, the last thing you’d do is represent people on death row,” he said.

Nevertheless, he added, “had I not done that work I am 100% certain I would not have this job.

“The experience that made me remotely qualified came out of that work.”

It is experience, he said, that teaches someone how to be a lawyer.

Mr. Verrilli moved to Washington, D.C., in the 80s to be a law clerk, and stayed because he thought “it was a great climate to be a lawyer” and he had ideas about perhaps someday working in government.

“The next thing I know I’m 50 years old and have 20-plus years in private practice.”

When Barack Obama was elected president, he decided to take the plunge into public service and he took a job in the attorney general’s office.

“Most people — my wife, my daughter, my parents — thought I was nuts,” he said with a laugh. “But I decided it was time to do it, and it worked out pretty good.

“I did what I thought was right and I didn’t let ego get in the way.”

In 2009 President Obama named him associate United States deputy attorney general within the Department of Justice. In 2010 he moved to the White House as deputy counsel to the president.

Genetics

One of the stories Mr. Verrilli told involves some back-to-school work. In April 2013, he represented the United States before the Supreme Court in a case that asked if a human gene could be patented (Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics).

“My science education stopped when I was a sophomore at Wilton High,” he said. The court was being asked to decide if, when a human gene is extracted from a body and isolated, it can be patented. Products of nature cannot be patented, but inventions can be.

“That’s a question of science,” he told his audience. “I had no idea.”

But he had to argue the government’s side — which was opposed to the idea of a patent — and he had to understand the science.

One perk of his job, he said, is to have myriad government experts at his disposal, and Francis S. Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health — previously head of the Human Genome Project — consulted with him and then sent a team of “three genius scientists” who gave Mr. Verrilli a three-hour tutorial on genetics.

“I understood it well enough to argue the case,” he said, but “the only people who knew less about genetics than me were the nine who were deciding the case.”

He had to come up with a simple but accurate way to explain the issue, “and so we came up with a metaphor of a chicken lays an egg, which consists of a yolk, the white, and the shell.

“When you crack the egg, you separate the yolk and the white from the shell. Would you say it’s no longer a product of nature, it’s an invention?

“You take the gene out of the body. Nobody thinks the yolk would be an invention.”

Other attorneys in the case argued their sides, and eventually the court decided unanimously that human genes may not be patented.

Integrity

When asked by Mr. Kaelin to address the students — perhaps some potential attorneys — in the audience, Mr. Verrilli explained he is present when all his staff attorneys argue cases in court.

“One thing that is incredibly clear is that nothing matters more when you are trying to persuade people than maintaining your integrity,” he said.

“It is important the people you are trying to persuade … they need to trust you. They may not agree with you, but the minute you lose their trust, you lose it forever. When they find you’ve not told the truth, they never trust you again. When you’re an advocate, that’s the worst that can happen.

“Be scrupulous and straightforward and they will hear what you have to say.”