Bal­ti­more solic­i­tor was too good for un­jus­ti­fied fir­ing

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Stephen H. Sachs and Shale D. Stiller Stephen H. Sachs (steve.sachs@wilmer­hale.com) was United States at­tor­ney for Mary­land from 1967 to 1970 and state at­tor­ney gen­eral from 1979 to 1987. Shale D. Stiller (shale.stiller@dlapiper.com) is a part­ner in DL

Bal­ti­more Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ingsBlake fired City Solic­i­tor Ge­orge A. Nil­son on Aug. 19. The mayor did not dis­cuss the ter­mi­na­tion with Mr. Nil­son. Nor did she ex­plain her ac­tions to the public. In a stun­ning show of cow­ardice, she del­e­gated that messy busi­ness to a sub­or­di­nate. Thus ended — with­out jus­ti­fi­ca­tion be­cause there is none — nearly a decade of Mr. Nil­son’s ex­em­plary ser­vice to the city.

The episode should not pass, how­ever, with­out public recog­ni­tion of the ac­com­plish­ments of this ex­tra­or­di­nary cit­i­zen and his con­tri­bu­tions to our city and state.

Mr. Nil­son served for nine years in the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice. He ar­gued and won three cases in the United States Supreme Court. He was lead coun­sel in ma­jor lit­i­ga­tion, no­tably in­volv­ing is­sues of school fi­nanc­ing and the right to public ed­u­ca­tion of chil­dren with spe­cial needs. He also mas­tered the art of avoid­ing lit­i­ga­tion with his in­ci­sive abil­ity to un­der­stand the mo­tives of those on “the other side” — an abil­ity he trans­lated into fash­ion­ing set­tle­ments that en­abled ev­ery­one to achieve progress. He was coun­sel to the Gen­eral As­sem­bly. He served as chief deputy to two suc­ces­sive at­tor­neys gen­eral and was an in­dis­pens­able bridge be­tween the two. It does not ex­ag­ger­ate to say that his love for public ser­vice, his wise coun­sel, his fi­delity to the law and the re­spect in which he was held by of­fice vet­er­ans and rook­ies alike, al­lowed the of­fice to main­tain and im­prove its roles as ad­vo­cate for con­sumers and the en­vi­ron­ment and as le­gal ad­vi­sor to every state agency.

His part­ner­ship at DLA Piper was marked by lead­er­ship in ma­jor pieces of land­mark com­plex lit­i­ga­tion. Healso man­aged to spend thou­sands of hours on pro bono mat­ters for var­i­ous in­sti­tu­tional and in­di­vid­ual clients and has won sev­eral dis­tin­guished ser­vice awards for his pro bono work. He was a role model and men­tor to a gen­er­a­tion of new lawyers.

He re­turned to public ser­vice in 2007 as Bal­ti­more’s city solic­i­tor. “It is un­ques­tion­ably the best job I have ever had,” he has writ­ten. Small won­der. In a town vexed by civic un­rest, racial di­vi­sion, po­lice-com­mu­nity ten­sion and count­less other con­flicts that in­evitably raise tangled le­gal ques­tions, there are chal­lenges aplenty for the public lawyer. His work as city solic­i­tor has been rec­og­nized by many pres­ti­gious awards in­clud­ing one for out­stand­ing public ser­vice by the In­ter­na­tional Mu­nic­i­pal Lawyers’ As­so­ci­a­tion.

But Mr. Nil­son has not been merely the su­per­in­ten­dent of some 70 lawyers han­dling the city’s le­gal af­fairs; he has built a first-rate law firm. As he has put it: “Re­cruit­ing tal­ent, both young and older, has been a spe­cial treat.” He has re­cruited out­stand­ing lawyers from the pri­vate bar and con­vinced them to come to the ser­vice of the city even while tak­ing a healthy cut in pay. They came be­cause it was Ge­orge Nil­son — a con­sum­mate pro­fes­sional with a thirst for public ser­vice — who would lead them. Mr. Nil­son put his brand on the of­fice, and the of­fice and the city are far bet­ter for it. He has set a very high bar for his suc­ces­sor.

Along­side Mr. Nil­son’s public and pri­vate lawyer­ing are his “ex­tracur­ric­u­lar” achieve­ments. He has served on nu­mer­ous com­mis­sions that, for ex­am­ple, an­a­lyzed the per­for­mance of city agen­cies, re­viewed Mary­land’s elec­tion laws and set leg­isla­tive com­pen­sa­tion. He has been a mem­ber of the pres­ti­gious Rules Com­mit­tee of the Court of Ap­peals of Mary­land. He led every com­mu­nity as­so­ci­a­tion wher­ever he lived. He is a founder and board mem­ber of FreeS­tate Jus­tice, which pro­vides free le­gal ser­vices for in­di­gent mem­bers of the LGBTQ com­mu­nity. And, in a ven­ture of which he is par­tic­u­larly proud, he has been a pi­o­neer in the char­ter school move­ment and served as board pres­i­dent of a high-per­form­ing public char­ter school.

Ge­orge Nil­son’s pro­fes­sional and civic con­tri­bu­tions have won the ad­mi­ra­tion of count­less lawyers, judges, busi­ness lead­ers, aca­demics and many other cit­i­zens.

He has made fel­low mem­bers of his pro­fes­sion proud to call them­selves lawyers. And all cit­i­zens of Bal­ti­more should be proud — and grate­ful — that he is one of them.

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