U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. ’83 Honored by Public Interest Law Foundation

Verrilli presented with the Public Interest Achievement Award for his commitment to public service.

New York, February 17, 2014—Lawyers can change the world by devoting part of their time to serving disadvantaged communities, said U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. ’83 at the Public Interest Law Foundation’s annual dinner at the Columbia Club on Feb. 6, where Verrilli was presented with the Public Interest Achievement Award.
Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. '83
Verrilli encouraged all lawyers, including those who specialize outside of public interest law, to make time for pro bono work.
“There’s always time to work for the public interest,” Verrilli said. “Look at your entire year and devote a fraction of it—say 10 percent—to work for people that society has neglected. Imagine how much difference it would make if every lawyer dedicated 10 percent of their time to serve those now underserved.”
Verrilli became the 46th solicitor general of the United States on June 9, 2011, succeeding Elena Kagan after she became an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He had previously served as associate U.S. deputy attorney general in the Department of Justice and in the White House as deputy counsel to the president. Prior to his government service, Verrilli was a partner at Jenner & Block, co-chairing the firm’s Supreme Court practice in addition to devoting 200 hours per year to pro bono work.
Dean David M. Schizer
As solicitor general, Verrilli is perhaps best known for his successful defense of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) before the Supreme Court in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. He persuaded the majority that the law’s mandate requiring citizens to purchase health insurance or face a fine is a legitimate exercise of federal taxing authority. In another high-profile case, Verrilli argued insupport of a lesbian widow against the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor. A majority of the justices ultimately struck down the relevant provision of DOMA, paving the way for federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
“For his work both in and out of government, Don Verrilli exemplifies the tradition of public service at Columbia Law School,” said David M. Schizer, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law and the Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law and Economics, before introducing Georgina Yeomans ’15, Dee Kuchukulla ’15, and Mary Dohrmann ’15, president and dinner chairs of the Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF).
Georgina Yeomans '15, left, and Dee Kuchukulla '15 and Mary Dohrmann '15
Peter L. Strauss, the Betts Professor of Law and faculty co-director of PILF, introduced Verrilli to the packed room by noting the honoree was a charter member of PILF in the early 1980s and reading from letters of recommendation describing his extraordinary commitment to public service before he came to Columbia Law School.
“It is the whole of Don’s life of commitment that I hope will serve as a model for students,” Strauss said.
Visibly moved, Verrilli then took the podium to say it was a “special honor” to receive the award before engaging in a lively question and answer session with the audience.
Verrilli and Professor Peter L. Strauss
Asked what work he is most proud of, Verrilli pointed both to his high-profile cases as solicitor general and to his pro bono advocacy, much of which he has devoted to death penalty cases. 
“The health care case was a particular high point,” he said. “I check every week with the Department of Health and Human Services to see how many people have enrolled for health insurance. I’m also proud of working for those without a voice, such as death row inmates who had been condemned without the counsel they needed to make their cases in court.”
Verrilli cited his work on Wiggins v. Smith, which established principles of effective defense counsel for clients facing capital punishment, as particularly gratifying. He has twice been honored by national organizations for his pro bono work in death penalty cases, receiving the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s Arthur von Briesen Award in 2004 and the Southern Center for Human Rights’ Frederick Douglass Award in 2006.
Professor Jane M. Spinak
After Jane M. Spinak, the Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor of Law and Strauss’ co-director, formally concluded the event, many attendees lingered to discuss their shared passion for public service.
PILF is an independent, student-run nonprofit of Columbia Law School students and alumni devoted to public interest advocacy. Founded in 1980, the organization helps fund students dedicated to working in public interest, government, and the nonprofit sector.
Through its yearly fundraising, PILF donates about $50,000 annually in community grants; the organization's total awards recently topped $1 million. In 2013, recipients included the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, New York Legal Assistance Group, Center for Children’s Advocacy, and American Friends Service Committee. On April 10, PILF will hold its 22nd annual Bid For Justice Auction to support the Community Grants Program and Guaranteed Summer Funding Program at Columbia Law School.

Since 1991, PILF has presented the Public Interest Achievement Award each year at its annual dinner. Previous recipients of the Public Interest Achievement Award include Rachel B. Tiven ’03, Preet Bharara ’93, and Eric H. Holder, Jr. ’76.

(center, left to right) Dean David M. Schizer, U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. '83, Professor Peter L. Strauss, and Professor Jane M. Spinak with members of Columbia Law School's Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF) and alumni.