After a tough year for Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., veterans of the U.S. Supreme Court bar gave him a collective bear hug recently, praising his integrity and abilities as a top-notch advocate.

The embrace came at the annual reception sponsored by the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University Law Center on April 25 – an event that has been called the prom or the company picnic of the elite Supreme Court bar.

"There is no lawyer in our nation’s capital who is more revered and more respected than Donald Verrilli," enthused former acting solicitor general Walter Dellinger in remarks at the event. Former solicitor general Paul Clement, Verrilli’s frequent adversary in hot-button cases, praised him as a "brave and fearless advocate."

Verrilli, a big fan of the Washington Nationals, was given an unusual surprise award by the group: the chance to hand the team lineups to the umpire before the Nats’ game against the Cincinnati Reds that very night. Mindful of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.’s famous statement that the job of a justice is like that of an umpire, some in the audience saw the gift as a fitting metaphor for the role the solicitor general plays in helping set the court’s agenda.

Last year, the reception must have been somewhat grim for Verrilli, with advocates and journalists dissecting over drinks his then-recent arguments in the Affordable Act cases and an Arizona immigration case, while Verrilli stood nearby chatting with lawyers from his office.

Verrilli had been criticized by some in the media for defending the health care law at oral argument in a hesitant manner, and not responding effectively to the barrage of questions from justices. Jeffrey Toobin of CNN famously pronounced his performance to be a "train wreck." But Toobin and others ate crow when Verrilli ended up mostly winning the case.

Supreme Court veterans, a generally collegial group, never openly joined in the criticism, but the Supreme Court Institute tribute to Verrilli memorialized their high regard for the unassuming SG, now in his second year on the job. Numerous lawyers from the SG’s office were also on hand to join in the celebration for Verrilli.

In his remarks Dellinger could not resist riffing on the criticism Verrilli received last year. "I seem to recall one cable news guy rushing out in front of the cameras right after the argument and using some colorful railroad metaphor," Dellinger said. "I think he said something like ‘the government’s argument was ‘more powerful than a locomotive.’ I’m doing this from memory, Don." Dellinger also said, tongue in cheek, "The other thing that astonishes (and frankly annoys) the Supreme Court bar about Don is that the justices always receive his arguments with a hushed, almost sycophantic, deference."

More seriously, Dellinger said of Verrilli, "He has brought to the podium a keen sense of where the court’s center of gravity might be located … Don argues without glibness, but with persistence and fidelity."

Dellinger also praised Verrilli for his closing remarks during the Affordable Care Act arguments, which did not get much attention at the time. Verrilli stressed the economic and human impact of the law on those with serious illnesses. "As a result of the health care that they will get, they will be unshackled from the disabilities that those diseases put on them and have the opportunity to enjoy the blessings of liberty," Verrilli told the court. Dellinger said Verrilli’s closing "will be among those moments that history remembers."

Clement spoke next, telling the crowd he would "resist the profound temptation to provide a rebuttal" to Dellinger, then praising Verrilli as well. Law school dean William Treanor also spoke. Justice Elena Kagan was in the audience.

Dori Bernstein, the institute’s director, said the tributes to Verrilli were "very poignant," and exemplified the collegiality of the Supreme Court bar. "Even when they disagree, they are still serving the common purpose of doing their best to help the court reach its decisions."

Bernstein said the event was also a chance to celebrate a new milestone for the institute, which among other things puts on moot courts for advocates preparing for Supreme Court arguments. For the first time, the institute mooted lawyers appearing in every one of the 75 cases argued this term. The institute recruited 234 volunteer "justices" for the moot courts.

According to a Georgetown news release, Verrilli praised the institute and its executive director Irv Gornstein as he accepted the award. "It makes such a huge contribution in improving advocacy before the Court and thereby shaping the development of the law."

Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com.