Longtime appellate lawyer Donald Verrilli Jr. picked up wide, bipartisan support today for his nomination for U.S. solicitor general, after senators said he had smoothed over some of their concerns about his independence from the White House.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 17-1 to recommend Verrilli's confirmation to the full Senate. The margin of the vote was in contrast to a contentious confirmation hearing in March, when Republicans asked Verrilli about the Obama administration’s decision not to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act against constitutional challenges. Verrilli said then that, if confirmed, he would defend federal laws “unless instructed to do otherwise” by his superiors.
But Republicans said today they were reassured in recent weeks by written follow-up comments from Verrilli, in which he said he would resign if told to take a stance “based on partisan political considerations or other illegitimate reasons.”
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) cited those comments in announcing his “lukewarm” and “tepid” support for Verrilli. “In numerous answers, he provided a much better response than he did during his hearing,” Grassley said.
In an unusual comment, Grassley, the committee’s ranking Republican, added that his vote doesn’t necessarily mean he would support Verrilli for another position in government should he be nominated again.
Verrilli is one of President Barack Obama’s top legal advisers, serving as a deputy White House counsel. A former Jenner & Block partner, he has argued 12 Supreme Court cases, including the 2005 file-sharing case MGM Studios Inc. v. Grokster Ltd. on behalf of recording companies and movie studios. He left the firm to join the Justice Department as an associate deputy attorney general in February 2009.
Verrilli recused from White House deliberations over the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, because Jenner & Block was involved in related litigation while he was still a partner there. At his confirmation hearing, he said he would not revisit Obama’s decision not to defend the 1996 law.
The lone vote against Verrilli came from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). He called Verrilli a “fine lawyer” but said the Justice Department’s leadership already has too many lawyers who have done defense work for terrorism suspects. At Jenner & Block, Verrilli worked on an amicus brief in the case of José Padilla. “I have great respect for the skills of Mr. Verrilli,” Sessions said. “If it hadn’t been for the pattern of appointments, I wouldn’t feel obligated to vote no.”
A final confirmation vote could come at any time, depending in part on how quickly Senate Democrats want to move Verrilli into the position. Neal Katyal has served as acting solicitor general for a year, since Justice Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court.
Updated at 11:31 a.m.