U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli is getting mixed reviews for his arguments on behalf of marriage equality before the Supreme Court Tuesday, with some observers saying he’ll emerge as the hero of the day, and others contending he delivered a weak performance.
Verrilli approached the justices just as an antigay protester was being ejected from the courtroom, noted Mark Joseph Stern in Slate. “Shouts of ‘abomination’ and ‘hell’ echoed into the courtroom as Verrilli began to speak,” Stern wrote. “But he forged ahead anyway — and what he said over the next 15 minutes masterfully established the burning importance and obvious correctness of marriage equality.”
The solicitor general “simply nailed it,” Stern continued. “With his 15 minutes, Verrilli grounded marriage equality in ‘human dignity,’ explaining that, if the court rules the wrong way, ‘thousands and thousands of people are going to live out their lives and go to their deaths without their states ever recognizing the equal dignity of their relationships.’ Justice Anthony Kennedy is absolutely fixated on dignity, and Verrilli’s argument is clearly designed to bait him.”
The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin also had praise for the solicitor general. “Verrilli, who was speaking for the Obama Administration, gave a superb argument in support of marriage equality in the mere 15 minutes allotted to him,” Toobin wrote. “'The opportunity to marry is integral to human dignity,’ he began. ‘Excluding gay and lesbian couples from marriage demeans the dignity of these couples. It demeans their children, and it denies the — both the couples and their children the stabilizing structure that marriage affords.’ (‘Dignity’ is Kennedy’s favorite word, and it’s funny to listen to lawyers pander to him by throwing it in at every opportunity.)”
Activist Lane Hudson was less impressed with Verrilli. He took a “reserved position,” Hudson told The Advocate via email. It seemed that Justices Alito, Roberts, and Scalia “were vocally trying to show their opposition or poke holes in the government’s position,” Hudson said. “It felt, honestly, like [Verrilli] wasn’t very good.”
Of course, the outcome of the case doesn’t depend entirely on Verrilli. Attorneys Mary Bonauto and Douglas Hallward-Driemeier also argued for marriage equality. And Verrilli’s performance before the high court has been criticized before, notably in defending President Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2012 against an attempt to strike it down. The court upheld the health reform law, a decision that The New York Times called a vindication of Verrilli as well as the legislation.
The Obama administration defended Verrilli then, and, as might be expected, praised the work he did this week. “The president is very proud of the way in which the solicitor general presented the viewpoint of the federal government, and we continue to be very confident in the strength of the legal arguments that he presented,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at Wednesday’s briefing. “But I’m not going to, at this point, prejudge the outcome of the decision.”
“Don Verrilli made a very cogent and persuasive argument about what he believes and what the federal government believes should be the outcome here,” Earnest continued. “And at this point, I’m not going to try to distill the arguments that he was making in this setting. I’ll just say that we feel very confident in the strength of the legal argument that he made, but we’ll let the Supreme Court decide as they should.”
If the decision is pro-equality, Stern wrote, “we’ll have a long roster of advocates to thank. Verrilli should be at the top of the list.”