Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake 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. He also 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 "extra-curricular" 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.