Almost thirty attorneys and judges joined a discussion with former Maryland and District of Columbia Attorneys General, Brian Frosh and Robert Spagnoletti, about the wide-ranging issues faced by an Attorney General (AG), and the differences between their jurisdictions. The two former AGs spoke at the Maryland State Bar Association’s professional excursion in Puerto Rico on Wednesday. Frosh served Maryland from 2015 to 2023, and Spagnoletti served the District of Columbia from 2003 to 2006.
Opening with an overview of the differences between the two AG offices, Spagnoletti pointed out that nothing happens in the District’s AG office without considering the relationship with the federal government because the AG’s office is funded through the Congressional appropriations process, and shares representation of the city in many areas such as the prosecution of crimes with federal law enforcement. Further, the District’s AG is appointed by the mayor and approved by the District Council, whereas the Maryland AG is elected by statewide vote. Frosh commented that the Maryland AG is the only AG in the country that doesn’t have common law power, meaning that the office cannot bring actions based solely in common law and has to seek legislative or gubernatorial approval to do so.
In representing the interests of their jurisdictions and their residents, both former AGs stressed that their staff attorneys handled an amazing variety of issues – everything from bond issues to zoning, to real estate, family law, consumer protection law, commercial law, and more. Spagnoletti cited as an example that of the 750 employees in the DC AG’s office, 200 work on child support issues, which many people don’t realize is handled by the AG’s office. Frosh explained that being AG is essentially being “the people’s lawyer” and is a position that can be effective in helping those citizens who aren’t in a position to defend or help themselves against predatory practices.
A lively question and answer session began with a question to Frosh about what an AG can do to reduce gun violence in Maryland, particularly in Baltimore City. Frosh stated that when he was AG, he established an organized crime unit of eight attorneys who focused strategically on gun crimes in Baltimore City that were seemingly random, but upon deeper investigation, were often tied to drug or human trafficking. As a result, they obtained more than 400 convictions of organized crime members. Further, Frosh pointed to legislation he supported that passed in 2022 banning the sale or transfer of “ghost guns” without a serial number in Maryland, which have been increasingly the weapon of choice in gun crimes in Baltimore.
A question about the difference between an advice letter and an opinion letter from the AG’s office revealed similarities between the two jurisdictions. Both panelists shared that an advice letter is just that – a letter regarding an issue that is researched and provided by the AG’s office upon request. It doesn’t carry any legal precedent or evidentiary value – it is primarily informational. An opinion letter in either jurisdiction has been researched thoroughly over an extended period of time and is expected to be persuasive in court. Indeed, Spagnoletti observed that an AG’s opinion letter is the law until a court says otherwise.
Asked about how the decision is made to hire outside counsel, both former AGs advised that the need for outside counsel is common and could come about due to a lack of internal resources or a conflict of interest between the department and the opposing party. Both agreed that large actions such as the opioid settlement with AGs across the nation, often required assistance from outside firms due to the sheer number of attorneys needed to focus on one case that couldn’t be pulled from the daily representation of the State or District. Each office has a solicitation and procurement process that is utilized to vet and hire outside counsel.
Finally, it was noted that the MSBA and the MD Attorney General’s office had a strong relationship that was solidified during the pandemic with the creation of the Access to Justice Task Force, and former AG Spagnoletti was asked if a similar bond existed in the District, now that he was the executive director of the DC Bar. Spagnoletti emphasized that his Bar had a very strong relationship with the D.C. AG’s office and its focus on civil justice. As an example, he cited the fact that more than twenty thousand people in the District had received pro bono legal representation through his Bar’s membership, and mostly from D.C. and federal government attorney members. Frosh closed the hour-long conversation with a thank you to the Maryland bar for its partnership and support in helping the citizens of Maryland access the critical civil legal assistance they needed during his tenure.