During a turn last October as Distinguished Lecturer of the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy, former US Solicitor General Donald Verrilli offered insights into the moral imperatives that guided him as the nation’s top attorney.
Joined by Professor Kent Greenfield in a Conversations@BC Law discussion, Verrilli reviewed some of the thirty-seven cases he argued during his tenure in the Obama Administration, including groundbreaking cases on same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and, most notably, the Affordable Care Act.
When faced with cases of particular moral urgency, Verrilli said, he placed special importance on transcending specific legal issues to achieve a higher consideration of the right position for the government to take.
An example was the time, as he prepared for the marriage equality case Obergefell v. Hodges, that Verrilli felt compelled to speak to President Obama directly about the strength of the government’s arguments for involvement. “It was an incredible experience and discussion,” he said. “[The President] knew there was a meeting about legal issues but not what the issues were specifically concerning.” But Obama immediately grasped the issues and slipped into the moot court mode of a constitutional law professor, peppering him with hypothetical questions from various justices.
Verrilli then referenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which argues against waiting for justice. The President, of course, was familiar with the document. “Both of us came to the same conclusion that this was a question that ‘could not wait,’ for doing so would split the country into two nations,” Verrilli said. “And while the President asked for time to consider, a few days later I was given the directive to file for the government.”