Distinguished Leaders A2JC Profile for Maryland Bar Journal
Brian Frosh is the Attorney General of Maryland and the Chair of the Maryland Attorney General’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force.
You created the Maryland Attorney General’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force – tell us why you were moved to do so.
The Task Force was conceived soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit our country. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated the fault lines of inequality and need that permeate our country and our state. We knew that hundreds of thousands of people would face homelessness, illness, joblessness and hunger of a magnitude we have not seen in our lifetimes. And we also knew that people of color would be disproportionately represented among the vulnerable populations.
The pandemic caused significant issues – business closings which led to individuals being laid off or unable to work. That led to more and more people being in danger of eviction, of foreclosure, and unable to access critical public benefits. Recognizing the growing health and economic crisis, my office partnered with the Maryland Access to Justice Commission to create the Attorney General’s COVID-19 Task Force. We knew that for many of our neighbors, a measure of relief could be achieved through our civil legal system. But an already complicated system was made even more complicated by a myriad of new regulations, new federal and state laws and regulations, new remote platforms, just to name a few. Our legal system should allow for everyone to be on equal footing. But even before the pandemic, people without means were at a huge disadvantage when they encounter the legal system.
The Task Force was created to address the inequities in our civil justice system. We brought together some of the smartest people across our state, representing every sector including government, nonprofit, legal, housing, employment, business to develop recommendations and strategies for reform through a lense of racial equity. After many months of work, many hours of meetings, the Task Force was able to develop recommendations that will assist those most in need and help our state respond to and assist the most vulnerable if faced with another crisis.
You have had a long and storied career in public service. Tell us what motivated and inspired that.
Public Service was always an important value in my family. My father fought in every major battle in the European Theatre in WWII and received a Bronze Star. Later, he served as a Montgomery County Councilman and as a Circuit Court judge.
My father stood up to Joe McCarthy and the Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations during the early 1950’s at the risk of his career. As a member of the County Council, he fought for civil rights in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
His example ignited my interest in public affairs and has inspired me ever since.
You have shown tremendous leadership during an exceptionally tumultuous and challenging time. And you’ve held many leadership positions through your career. Tell us what leadership means to you and what you think makes for an effective leader.
Jerry Garcia, songwriter and lead guitarist for the Grateful Dead, once said: “Somebody’s got to do something. It’s just so incredibly pathetic that is has to be us.”
I do not believe that leaders are born or anointed. They are people who, despite their feelings of inadequacy, choose to lead or run for office.
I think effective leaders are those who can listen to all sides and find common ground, those who can persuade and inspire others and those who treat everyone fairly.
You have had your hand in many important reforms over the years that affect the lives of Marylanders – from gun safety to environmental issues. What do you view as your greatest accomplishment? What do you still want to get done?
As a legislator, I am most proud of my work on gun safety legislation, laws that protect the Bay, our air and water and laws that provide opportunities to those who suffer from poverty and discrimination.
As Attorney General, I am most proud of my work to stand up for those who are not always able to stand up for themselves. We fought to stop unscrupulous companies who swindled young, lead paint-poisoned victims out of their structured settlement payments. We fought to stop the practice of imprisoning people just because they could not afford to pay cash bail. We fought to stop nursing homes from dumping elderly, vulnerable people in homeless shelters or just out on the street. We fought against racial profiling.
I am very proud of the work our office did in checking the illegal actions of the Trump Administration over the past four years. Among many actions, we fought back against unconstitutional policies like the Muslim Ban and the family separation policy. We stopped rollbacks of important environmental and consumer protections, and we fought to protect health care for all Americans.
This year, I’m extremely proud of the work of my COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force. From it, arose my key legislative initiative this session which is to raise the court filing fee for evictions.
Eviction is not simply a condition of poverty. Rather, it is a root cause, perpetuating a cycle that can last for generations. It means loss, not just of a home, but also of possessions, school, community, employment, mental and physical health, and the ability to find another place to live. The filing fee in Maryland to evict a family from their home is $15. Landlords are incentivized to use the nuclear option because it is so cheap – 1/8 of the national average of $122. Maryland’s rate of eviction filings is 5 to 13 times greater than those of our neighbors. During this awful pandemic and beyond, reducing the number of eviction cases filed will lift a heavy burden from tenants without endangering the business of landlords.
Tell us more about your career trajectory and how you got to be where you are. You’ve worked in private practice, in the legislature and now you’re the attorney general. Was it all planned out or were there surprises along the way. What’s been the most fun?
None of it was planned. Running for office can be both terrifying and exhilarating. Timing and luck are key ingredients in a successful campaign.
I loved being a legislator. Every day was a course in law, psychology and social policy.
When both of my daughters became adults, and when there was an opening in the AG’s office, I was able to commit the time to what I knew would be a grueling campaign.
Being Attorney General is the best job I have had. I’m surrounded by hundreds of lawyers who have dedicated their lives to serving the State and who are subject matter experts in their fields. I learn from them. There is never a boring day.
Who have been your key mentors and/ or influencers? What did they model for you or what advice did they give you that still stands out?
My father was a big influence. As a young lawyer, he represented a bookbinder at the federal Government Printing Office who was accused of being a Communist by Joe McCarthy. Roy Cohn, then chief counsel for McCarthy’s Senate investigations, told my dad: “Your client’s in a lot of trouble, and if you represent him, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. My advice is, get rid of this guy.” My dad refused. After my dad advised his client to take the Fifth Amendment before McCarthy’s committee, the client was fired and run out of town. My father was then ostracized by the Montgomery County bar, where lawyers even refused to sit with him at monthly bar lunches for fear of being associated with him.
Attorney General Steve Sachs has been a wonderful friend and mentor. Shortly after he was sworn in, Maryland was sued for warehousing mentally ill and developmentally disabled adults in State facilities. They had committed no crimes. They were being held because of their medical conditions. Attorney General Sachs had the courage and foresight to recognize that this type of confinement was both inhumane and unconstitutional. There remains a long way to go, but he changed the way our State treats mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals.
Among many other people who have influenced me, I include Judge Rita Davidson, for her brilliance, tenacity and unparalleled work ethic; Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a good friend and a consummate public servant; my wife, Marcy Frosh, who is always able to put her finger on the right thing to do.
What advice do you have for young, up and coming attorneys?
When we look around us at the world today, it is clear that we need change agents.
We see it across the planet in a changing, warming climate that threatens natural resources and the lives of billions of people.
We see it right here at home where our nation is in turmoil and fighting a pandemic. Racism, violence and hate seem to be on the rise. At times the Rule of Law, the foundation of our democracy, is under attack.
Our young attorneys have joined an honorable and important profession. They are among the 1%. Perhaps not in wealth. But in terms of ability, achievement and potential to make an impact, they are now among the elite. They are in a position to improve the lives of their clients and society at large. I hope they will use the law as a force for good, and for justice.