Should city solicitor be an elected office?


City Solicitor George A. Nilson

In the midst of debate earlier this week at a City Council committee hearing on whether the council should have its own legal counsel, another idea concerning the job of city solicitor was proposed.

“We may want to consider the solicitor’s office become an elected position,” said Councilman Warren Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat.

The city solicitor is appointed by the mayor to lead the Law Department, which represents and advises the city government. The solicitor also has a vote on the Board of Estimates, the city’s spending panel.

Branch also suggested replacing the city solicitor’s seat on the Board of Estimates so it “doesn’t look like he’s in the council’s pocket or mayor’s pocket.”

None of Branch’s colleagues commented on the idea. City Solicitor George A. Nilson, who appeared before the committee, only noted the state’s top legal position, attorney general, is also an elected position.

“I think that’s an issue for another day,” he said of Branch’s proposal.

Branch agreed.

But what do you think — should city residents elect the city solicitor?

Attorney named to Md.’s international advisory council

Gov. Martin O’Malley has named an attorney from Whiteford Taylor Preston LLP to Maryland’s International Advisory Council.

The Baltimore-based law firm announced Alexander W. Koff’s appointment Wednesday.

Koff already has significant international experience. He is the co-chair of the firm’s international practice and focuses mainly on international business transactions, government investigations, regulatory issues, litigation and arbitration. He has clients in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America.

The council focuses on the state’s international profile. It was created in 2009 and is made up of 20 members from various business areas and industries.

Referendum on referendums still on hold

Del. Jon Cardin

Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County

The legal issues surrounding voter referendums are as nuanced as the signatures that often come under scrutiny during court battles over the petitions.

John Henry Smith, for example, can sign and print his name on a petition and it would be counted. But if he were to sign “Jack Smith” and print “J. H. Smith,” the signature wouldn’t be permitted.

It’s why Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, wants to make easier the signature requirement for referendum, despite the objections of Democratic leadership in the General Assembly.

“Predictability is important in this process for petitioners and government,” Cardin said during the Administrative Law Section’s panel discussion at the Maryland State Bar Association’s Annual Meeting in Ocean City. “If you create a system that creates certainty, we are doing the right thing in terms of public policy no matter your politics.”

Cardin, who chairs an election law subcommittee in the House of Delegates, said legislation to reform the petition process was not passed in the General Assembly this year because of the “volatile nature” of the session (including the gun control and death penalty bills) and because Democratic leaders felt it would be too partisan to pass such legislation so close to next year’s election.

Speaking of the 2014 election, the primary was moved up to June in part to accommodate a federal law that requires ballots to be finalized 45 days before an election so they can be sent to military personnel overseas. (The September date was too close to November’s general election.)

The legal timeline to appeal a ballot question moves at a breakneck pace by legal standards. A case can go from a circuit court to the Court of Appeals in 30 days, members of the panel said.

But “can” does not mean “will,” especially at the trial court level. How much evidence is admissible at trial varies from judge to judge, with some allowing very little evidence and others allowing six months of discovery, the panelists said.

One thing most judges don’t want to do, according to Francis J. Collins, is go through tens of thousands of signatures that might be contested.

“Form takes over substance,” said Collins, of Kahn, Smith & Collins P.A. in Baltimore. “Circuit court judges and clerks don’t have the time.”

A final fun fact from the panel: Maryland is one of two states that solely have a referendum, meaning voters cannot adopt new laws, only repeal laws passed by the legislature.

Duck, duck… lawsuit?

Madison Grimm, age 6, is the artist behind the painting of a canvasback duck you see here. Madison submitted it to the 2013 Federal Junior Duck Stamp Art Contest, and last month she became the youngest winner in the competition’s history.

But then questions were raised about the “painting’s authenticity” and poor Madison was disqualified.

Madison’s dad is a wildlife artist and her painting was based on an unpublished photo her father took. The Grimms’ hometown Argus (S.D.) Leader picks up the story:

She also used a technique called a graphite transfer, where an artist applies a pencil lead to a print of the photo to create an outline for a painting. Both are legal, and both are accepted and common among artists…

Madison’s dad hired a Washington, D.C., lawyer to help reinstate his daughter as the winner, according to the Leader. The legal questions abound — was Madison’s technique legal? Did she violate any copyright or fair use laws by using the photo as the basis of her painting? Could the duck file its own suit alleging his (or her) image was used for commercial purposes without her consent?

Alas, we’ll never know all of the answers — the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced it reinstated Madison and her painting as the winner after “careful consideration.”

So congratulations to Madison and thanks for inspiring me to try to find my inner-artist.

It’s just too bad I’m too old to take a quack at this contest.

You got to believe? Not really

If you read to the end of an article at about countries where you can be executed for being an atheist, you will find a mention of Maryland. No, not for that, of course, but Maryland is listed as one of seven states where it is illegal for an atheist to hold public office.

What’s up with that?

It’s in Article 37 of the state constitution, which reads, in part: “That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God.”

However, though the article remains, it was successfully challenged in 1961 by Roy R. Torcaso, who had refused to swear an oath in Montgomery County Circuit Court affirming his belief in God in order to become a notary public. Torcaso’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.

Associate Justice Hugo Black’s opinion said government may not “constitutionally force a person ‘to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.’ [Government may not] constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers.”

Torcasco became a notary public, swearing to uphold the laws of Maryland and the U.S. Constitution, his obituary in the Washington Post said. He died in 2007 at age 96.

Raskin rips Romney, Ryan and Robert (Bork)

Maryland state Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, wants voters heading to the polls to remember that the president has the authority to make appointments to the Supreme Court and lower federal courts — and that Robert Bork is among the legal advisers to the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

Raskin, an ardent supporter of President Barack Obama, warned in Wednesday’s Huffington Post that a “Romney-Ryan-Bork court would lead to the uncorking of bottles of champagne throughout the boardrooms of America’s largest and most right-wing corporations.”

Romney appointees to the federal courts would lead to “an acceleration of all of the worst trends already ravaging the prospects of justice for ‘natural persons’ in America, including the destruction of what is left of campaign finance and disclosure laws as corporations assume all the political free speech rights of the people, a dramatic change ushered in by Citizens United in 2010,” Raskin added on the post’s Politics blog.

Raskin has been quite prolific recently, having written an op-ed piece in the New York Times last week calling for a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Supreme Court ruled that “the government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether” under the First Amendment.

But Raskin, a widely respected constitutional law professor at American University, might need to brush up on his history.

In the Huffington Post piece he referred to Bork as as “the right-wing polemicist and former Bush Supreme Court nominee so extreme that he was rejected by a bipartisan coalition of Senators in 1987.”

“I think somebody must have changed that,” Raskin said of the error. “I very well know that Ronald Reagan is the one who made that mistake.”

He must have felt entitled

What do sentencing guidelines say about chutzpah?

A Baltimore man convicted of Social Security fraud in federal court this week not only was fraudulently collecting disability benefits, but he also did it while he worked for the Social Security Administration.

Christopher George Perry, 50, was found guilty by a jury in U.S. District Court in Baltimore of Social Security disability fraud, federal health benefit program fraud and health care fraud.

Perry began receiving Social Security long-term disability payments in 1996, according to evidence during the four-day trial, but he went back to work during that year while continuing to draw payments. Two years later, Perry added Medicare benefits under his disability and then, in 2007, he got a low-income prescription subsidy via Medicare.

However, Perry was working various jobs and attending college during this time. In 2007, he got a job with the Social Security Administration as a benefits authorizer. His work assignment? Long-term disability cases. He would certainly seem to have some expertise in that area.

At trial, Perry was said to have collected more than $150,000 he wasn’t entitled to. Sentencing is in January.

And this kind of double-dipping is far worse than anything George Constanza ever did.

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‘Warrior Lawyer’ launches Facebook attack

Baltimore’s “Warrior Lawyer” is waging battle a little farther south down I-95.

J. Wyndal Gordon, the “Warrior Lawyer,” unleashed an attack on Washington, D.C., Councilman Michael Brown in a post on Facebook this week.

“I never was much into D.C. politics, but I do know a Rat when I smell one,” the post begins.

Gordon is representing Brown’s former campaign manager, Hakim Sutton. Brown fired Sutton after discovering campaign funds were missing. Gordon wrote the post after Brown held a news conference announcing the $114,000 in missing campaign money.

Gordon went on to accuse Brown of “skulduggery and debauchery,” saying Brown failed to properly pay employees and hinted that Brown himself had taken the missing money.

“It is due to his own laziness, arrogance, narcissism and greed that Brown finds himself in the position he’s in today [with little money], — not some false claim of theft as he would have the public to wholesale believe,” Gordon wrote in the post.

In-House Interrogatory

This week is all about rumors and secrets.

Asked: Our weekly question to the In-House community

The former general counsel of the National Security Agency talked leaks with NPR recently.

Joel Brenner talked to the news organization about the recent national security leaks the country has been abuzz about this month. Various news organizations, including The New York Times, published stories with hyper-secret information like the country’s drone strike policy, a United States cyberattack against Iran and information about an al-Qaida cell in Yemen.

Here’s what Brenner had to say:

“There are [also] people who leak because the process of being courted by a reporter is so flattering,” Brenner told NPR. “It so increases peoples’ sense of self-importance that they will want to talk.”

So, while your company may not deal in secrets that could affect the security of the entire nation, every corporation has information it wants to keep among employees.

So, here’s our question for you:

How do you and your company deal with leaks and employees telling the press or anyone confidential information?

Leave a comment below or email me.

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Wikipedia to blackout English site Wednesday in protest

For those of you who — like myself — learn a lot of what you know from reading articles on Wikipedia, you’re going to have to Google a little bit harder for 24 hours on Wednesday.

The nonprofit “Free Encyclopedia” (which hosts 20 million articles in 283 languages, according to the “Wikipedia” Wikipedia article) announced Monday that it would stage a blackout of its English articles in protest of the proposed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and PROTECTIP (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate.

The Washington Post defined the bills back in October better than I could (even after trying to summarize the actual bill text):

It would allow the FBI to seek injunctions against foreign Web sites that steal music, films, software and other intellectual property created by U.S. firms. The bill also includes provision that could hold third parties — payment-processing and other partners — responsible for piracy and counterfeiting on other sites, some critics say.

Since Wikipedia articles can be written and edited by anyone worldwide, its founders, authors and supporters believe the legislation poses a threat and provides “new tools for censorship of international websites inside the United States.”

Wikipedia administrators released a statement Monday announcing their protest, stating: “It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web.”

Its co-founder, Jimmy Wales, also said in a statement:

This is an extraordinary action for our community to take — and while we regret having to prevent the world from having access to Wikipedia for even a second, we simply cannot ignore the fact that SOPA and PIPA endanger free speech both in the United States and abroad, and set a frightening precedent of Internet censorship for the world.

According to Google, Wikipedia was the sixth most-visited website on the Web in July 2011, with 410,000,000 unique visitors and 6 billion pageviews (which makes Web journalists like myself who track site statistics very envious).

It is the highest website on the list to not have any advertising, something its founders value, and why you saw those ads at the top of most articles late last year asking for donations.

Addition at 2 p.m.

Daniel Terdiman, a writer at c|net (or, points out a way around the blackout — just in case you can’t go another minute without learning about Deaths in 2011 or finding a list of “Glee” episodes.