Appeal over Trump's Jan. 6 liability draws Supreme Court vet Verrilli

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather in Washington
An explosion caused by a police munition is seen while supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis

(Reuters) - A leading U.S. Supreme Court advocate has joined the federal court fight over whether former U.S. President Donald Trump can be sued over his supporters' Jan. 6, 2021, siege on the U.S. Capitol.

Donald Verrilli, who defended the Affordable Care Act before the high court as U.S. solicitor general in the Obama administration and on behalf of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2020, joined the case on Thursday along with other attorneys at the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, and argued that Trump can be sued for obstructing Congress.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is weighing Trump's claim that he is fully immune from civil lawsuits over Jan. 6 brought by Democrats in Congress and U.S. Capitol Police officers because he was president at the time he allegedly incited the Capitol riot.

The D.C. Circuit's eventual ruling may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could accept or reject the case.

Verrilli and a lawyer for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuits cite Trump's fiery speech earlier on Jan. 6, in which he maintained his unfounded claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election and told his supporters to "fight like hell" ahead of the congressional certification of President Joe Biden's election victory.

Under a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, presidents cannot be sued over acts tied to their official duties. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington ruled in February 2021 that Trump's conduct tied to Jan. 6 did not fall within the scope of his office and that the civil lawsuits could move forward.

Verrilli, who represents Democratic Representative Barbara Lee, submitted a joint brief Thursday with other lawyers for the Democrats and officers suing Trump. They agreed with the U.S. Justice Department's position in the case that Trump is not automatically immune but took issue with aspects of the government's position.

The Justice Department has not taken a position on whether Trump incited the riot but said "incitement of imminent private violence" would not fall within the scope of a president's official duties.

The lawyers argued that the court should make a ruling based on the premise that presidents are not immune from lawsuits alleging their conduct obstructed members of Congress from carrying out their constitutional duties.

Lawyers for Trump also filed a brief in the case Thursday, reiterating their argument that he is immune from the lawsuits.

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Jacqueline Thomsen, based in Washington, D.C., covers legal news related to policy, the courts and the legal profession. Follow her on Twitter at @jacq_thomsen and email her at