Based on reporting by The Brew, it appears that Ebony Thompson, Mayor Brandon Scott’s nominee to become the next city solicitor, will fall about 11 months short of qualifying to hold the office under the eligibility requirements established by the City Charter, if she is confirmed by the City Council in January to replace Jim Shea, who is retiring.
In the scheme of things, it’s hardly the biggest of deals.
That’s in part because the mayor has the option to appoint Thompson as acting city solicitor until she qualifies in December of 2023 rather than attempt to appoint her as soon as Shea leaves.
A bigger deal is the statement by the mayor’s office that Thompson’s “legal experience” as a summer intern satisfies the requirement imposed by Article VII, Section 23 of the City Charter that the solicitor “shall be a member of the Maryland Bar, who has practiced the profession of law for not less than 10 years.”
Whoever came up with that argument knew – or should have known – that it is specious. And it is that specious defense of the decision to appoint Thompson that has prompted me to write this.
It is one thing to bend the rules to get someone appointed to an office before the law allows. It is quite another to misrepresent the law to the public in an attempt to justify it.
“Practiced the profession of law” as used in the Charter requirement has a specific meaning, and it is narrower than simply “legal experience.”
“This issue has nothing to do with Ms. Thompson’s skill as a lawyer. But it does reflect the attitude of the mayor toward the law and the centrality of truth.”
In a well-known 2007 case titled Abrams v. Lamone, the Maryland Court of Appeals held that Tom Perez was not eligible to serve as Maryland Attorney General because he had not “practiced Law in this State for at least 10 years” as required by Article V, Section 4 of the Maryland Constitution.
Reasoning that only a member of the Maryland Bar is authorized to “practice law” in the state, the court interpreted the requirement to mean that a person seeking to hold the office of Attorney General “must have practiced Law for 10 years in Maryland as a member of the Maryland Bar.”
According to the court: “There can be no meaning attached to this phrase [“practiced Law in this State”]. . . other than that practicing law in Maryland requires admission to the bar of this State. The practice of law in Maryland and Maryland bar admission are coterminous; one follows from and, indeed, is dependent on the other.”
The only difference between the provisions of city and state law is that the City Charter does not require the 10 years of legal practice necessary to qualify for appointment as city solicitor to be in Maryland.
Applying the standard set forth by the Court of Appeals, however, any years of practice in another state credited toward the requirement must have been practiced as a member of the Bar of that state.
Experience isn’t Practice
Thompson was admitted to the Maryland Bar on December 19, 2013. Neither the city nor Thompson’s LinkedIn page describes legal experience before then that would appear to qualify as the practice of law.
Unless there is something prior to December 19, 2013 that arguably would qualify, such as participation in an approved clinical program or externship under the direction of a faculty member while she was a student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Thompson is ineligible to become city solicitor until December 18, 2023.
“The last six years have impressed upon me the importance of the rule of law, no matter how inconvenient.”
This has nothing to do with Thompson’s skill as a lawyer or her general qualifications to serve as city solicitor. This is about the attitude of the mayor toward the law – and the centrality of truth.
I’ve been a lawyer for a long time, but the last six years have impressed upon me the true importance of the rule of law. Without it, we have nothing.
We need far more elected officials who live within the restraints of the law, no matter how inconvenient, and far fewer ones who decide to violate the restraints and then spin tales to try to explain away their actions.
Mr. Mayor, if Thompson is as good as you say she is, appoint her acting city solicitor upon Shea’s departure.
Nothing prevents you from initiating the process to confirm her for the permanent position later.
But don’t insult the intelligence of city voters and damage your own credibility by relying on a theory cut from whole cloth to justify making her appointment permanent before she is legally eligible.
• David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney after 31 years in the county law office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @dplymyer.