You hear the one about the Solicitor General, the cough and the bad reviews?

By Kimberly Atkins

Dolan Media Newswires

BOSTON, MA--In the days after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the healthcare challenge and again after the Arizona immigration law case, there was a lot of chatter among Court watchers. And a lot of it involved one question: Just how bad was Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr.'s performance?

As the New York Times' Adam Liptak points out in his piece yesterday, Supreme Court oral advocacy is usually not a spectator sport, at least not to the extent that it was when it came to Verrilli's performance at the podium in March and April. But after the healthcare case, some observers skewered his performance as if he were a quarterback who choked and got repeatedly sacked at the Super Bowl.

Verrilli did choke a little--literally--at the start of the second day of arguments, coughing and needing to pause to take a drink of water in an effort to clear his throat of something. That problem only lasted briefly, but it proved to be a metaphor to how some saw his entire performance, spurring headlines like: "Obama's Solicitor General Coughs, Stumbles, Stutters Through ObamaCare Defense."

Others cut right to the chase, with headlines like the one on Mother Jones' website: "Donald Verrilli Makes the Worst Supreme Court Argument of All Time."

The critiques of his performance had the media on high alert once the immigration case came up. When at one point Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor suggested that Verrilli's argument was "not selling well" with the justices, the press made a little collective gasp. Here we go again, we thought. We were right. The reviews were not good.

Liptak pointed out that in the court of public opinion, the jury was split. Members of the Supreme Court bar defended Verrilli, saying he had a very tough job to do, and he rose to the occasion.

"It always looks bad when the justices aren't buying what you're selling," Ted Olson, veteran Supreme Court advocate and former solicitor general, told Liptak. "Don had very, very difficult cases. That hand was dealt before he got there."

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Published: Mon, May 14, 2012