‘The quintessential public servant’: Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh is retiring after 36 years in state politics

Published on: December 29, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: December 29, 2022 11:09 AM EST

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh talks to a reporter from The Baltimore Banner in his office in Baltimore, Thursday, December 15, 2022.
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As he wraps up his decadeslong career in public service, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh is not coasting into retirement.

During the last six months of his tenure, Frosh has been navigating two high-profile cases.

His office has been responding to the abrupt freeing of Adnan Syed, whose case received worldwide attention in 2014 with the release of the podcast “Serial.” That’s in addition to finalizing and pushing for the release of a 456-page grand jury report about the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which identified 158 priests — many of them previously known — accused of sexual abuse and “physical torture” of more than 600 people during the last 80 years.

“People say, ‘So, are you winding down?’ And the answer is, ‘No,’” Frosh said in a recent interview at his office inside St. Paul Plaza in Baltimore. “We have a pipeline. And the pipeline is full, and it keeps coming at me.”

Frosh, 76, of Chevy Chase, is retiring on Jan. 3 after spending the last eight years as Maryland’s 46th attorney general, the state’s chief legal officer. His legacy is clear: he used the expanded powers of the office to challenge the Trump administration in court, pushed for criminal justice reforms, and focused on consumer protection. But he also drew criticism — including for his positions on gun control — and it is unclear whether those policies will withstand ongoing litigation.

“Brian is an extraordinary public official,” said John Willis, who served as Maryland secretary of state from 1995-2003 and has acted as senior counsel to Frosh since 2015.

“I’ve worked with virtually everybody in the last 50 years or observed them or interacted with them in some fashion,” he added. “And Brian is the quintessential public servant.”

‘Ronald Reagan? I can do better than this’

Frosh was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Montgomery County, his family eventually settling in Bethesda.

His late father, Stanley, a World War II veteran and son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, inspired a sense of social justice. He represented a bookbinder at the Government Printing Office called to testify before U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953 on accusations of being a communist.

Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel who would later serve as Donald Trump’s mentor and attorney, warned Frosh’s father against continuing to provide representation. But he did not back down, and later served on the Montgomery County Council from 1958-1962 as well as the bench as a judge from 1975-1989.

After law school, Frosh took a job as a legislative liaison to Rita Davidson, secretary of the Maryland Department of Employment and Social Services. He left in 1972 to work as a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Harrison “Pete” Williams Jr., D-New Jersey, and went into private practice in 1976 at what was then called Kass, Skalet & Frosh.

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In 1979, Frosh moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to work on antitrust litigation.

Frosh, a Democrat, said he’d thought that it would be exciting to run for office. But he said he’s more reserved and felt uncomfortable asking for campaign contributions and consorting with lobbyists.

When Republicans regained control of the U.S. Senate for the first time in 28 years and Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, Frosh said, “My head was exploding.” He decided to run for Maryland State Senate.

“I was trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Frosh said. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Ronald Reagan? I can do better than this.’”

On the campaign trail, Frosh recalled going to a home on Morgan Drive in Chevy Chase.

“I stood on the sidewalk really for about 10 minutes screwing up my courage to go knock on the door. And I finally knocked on the door,” he said. “Nobody was home. I was so relieved. I couldn’t believe it.”

But Frosh said he evolved from that person and became possessed. He won the Democratic primary but lost on Election Day to the Republican incumbent, state Sen. Howard Denis, by 596 votes.

Frosh said he hoped that he’d one day have another opportunity.

‘It’s real. It’s not political’

The opportunity came in 1986. Frosh successfully ran for the Maryland House of Delegates, where he’d serve until 1995.

He developed a reputation in the legislature as a leading proponent of gun control measures and environmental protection. That’s in addition to being an intelligent, kind and soft-spoken lawmaker.

“It’s real. It’s not political,” said Will Baker, the retired president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who led the nonprofit organization from 1981-2021. “It’s in his heart. It’s in his gut.”

Frosh helped block an effort to overturn an opinion from the Maryland Court of Appeals, then the name of the state’s highest court, which ruled in 1985 that people could sue gun manufacturers over injuries from small, cheap handguns sometimes referred to as “Saturday night specials.” He was part of the push to ban those weapons outright in 1988.

When Helen Bentley ran for governor of Maryland, she selected Denis to be her choice for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket. So Frosh ran and won election to the Maryland State Senate in 1994.

He served as chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee from 2003-2015 and played a key role in efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, abolish the death penalty and pass comprehensive gun control measures following the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Frosh cared about the details of public policy and was “doing things for the right reasons, even when you vehemently disagreed with him,” said former state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, who took over as chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee in 2015 and is now a lobbyist.

Zirkin remembered how the pair engaged in a dayslong, esoteric debate over Frosh’s bill aimed at protecting people from strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP, which are designed to silence criticism through use of the legal system.

“We were just having this huge legal fight,” Zirkin said. “And at the end of it, we just kind of gave each other a hug.”

Though Frosh said he enjoyed serving as a senator, he decided to run for attorney general in 2014.

Rachel Levine, Frosh’s campaign manager in 2014, recalled meeting him at a Caribou Coffee in downtown Bethesda to discuss his run. He promised to be the “people’s lawyer.”

Levine said she asked Frosh why he was running because he’d accomplished so much as a legislator. He replied, “Because there’s so much more that can be done.”

“I know it sounds almost naïve,” she said, “but that sounded cool to hear.”

In the Democratic primary, Frosh prevailed over two challengers, Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, and Aisha Braveboy, who’s now Prince George’s County state’s attorney. He then won the general election, earning 55.8% of the vote.

‘The firewall to protect us’

When Trump took office in 2017, he issued an executive order that, in part, banned travel for 90 days from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which critics referred to as the “Muslim ban.”

Frosh said he wrote to Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, asking for permission to sue — but did not hear back.

Next, Frosh said, he went to lawmakers, who quickly passed the Maryland Defense Act, which allows the attorney general to sue to protect the state against harmful actions from the federal government. When Trump issued a second, revised executive order, Maryland joined a lawsuit from Washington state.

Frosh estimated that he used that power about 100 times during the Trump presidency.

“Brian was the attorney general of Maryland during a time when we had a mentally-ill, narcissistic president who was being aided by Congress for much of that time,” said Doug Gansler, who served as Maryland attorney general from 2007-2015.

“All sort of other branches of government abdicated their responsibility,” he added. “And Brian Frosh and likeminded Democratic attorneys general truly became the firewall to protect us.”

Perhaps the most notable case was the lawsuit that Frosh and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine brought alleging that Trump’s business entanglements violated the foreign and domestic emoluments clauses of the Constitution.

Now, Frosh said, it sounds almost quaint to state that Trump had been violating the “nation’s first anti-corruption law.”

“It was for an important principle,” Frosh said. “I mean, there’s not another president who violated the emoluments clauses openly — or to the extent that Trump did.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ended the lawsuit, holding that the case was moot after Trump left office.

The case, though, showed the way for other attorneys general and helped elevate the issue on the national level, said U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a fellow Democrat from Montgomery County and a member of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Earlier in his tenure, Frosh issued an opinion in which he wrote that the state’s cash bail system under which people who could not afford to pay were incarcerated was likely unconstitutional. The Maryland Court of Appeals’ rules committee voted 7-0 in 2017 to overhaul the process.

His office sponsored legislation in 2020 to end the state’s practice of suspending people’s driver’s licenses for failing to pay fines and fees. More than 130,000 Marylanders were able to get them back when that measure took effect, Frosh said.

The Maryland General Assembly in 2021 again expanded the power of the attorney general’s office and created the Independent Investigations Division, which is responsible for examining “all alleged or potential police-involved deaths of civilians.”

The Independent Investigation Division took on 23 cases from Oct. 1, 2021, through Sept. 30. State’s attorneys did not file charges.

Frosh’s office brought a number of lawsuits aimed at protecting consumers, suing Volkswagen over the diesel emission scandal; Access Funding on allegations that it misled people who’d received structured settlements for lead paint poisoning; and Westminster Management LLC, a company that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, co-owns, over accusations that it charged tenants illegal fees and failed to maintain properties.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, said he and Frosh held a series of forums about consumer protection across the state. “He saw the role as having an important education function, as well as a law enforcement function,” Van Hollen said.

The forums were like “a traveling roadshow,” said Yvette Lewis, chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, who worked for Van Hollen as a senior adviser from 2016-2019.

Lewis said she followed Frosh’s advice and froze her credit so scammers could not open new accounts in her name.

Later, Lewis said, a sales associate convinced her to apply for a credit card to get a discount on a purchase. Her application was denied; she panicked.

“I dawned on me, ‘Yvette, you froze your credit,’” said Lewis, who added that she then felt a sense of comfort that Frosh’s advice worked. “I couldn’t even do anything. And it was me trying to do it.”

Besides being a noted fan of the Grateful Dead, Frosh enjoys operas such as “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Barber of Seville.” He said he likes American soprano Beverly Sills and Swedish tenor Jussi Björling.

He uses his bicycle for short trips, such as errands and doctor appointments.

2014 photo of Brian Frosh, center, is pictured with Vincent DeMarco, left, and DeMarco’s wife, Molly Mitchell, during a bike ride on the Northern Central Railroad Trail.

Vincent DeMarco, president of Maryland Health Care for All and a longtime advocate for public health causes, said he and his wife, Molly Mitchell, took a photo with Frosh on a bike ride on the Northern Central Railroad Trail during the 2014 campaign.

DeMarco said Frosh told him that he was going to post the picture. But Frosh later reversed himself after his campaign team noted that he was wearing bike shorts. “His aides felt that he would’ve lost the election if this picture was posted,” DeMarco said.

People described Frosh as the same person in public as he is in private — though he’s known to occasionally use a well-placed curse word.

The current chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, state Sen. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery County, said he and Frosh take periodic hikes at Rock Creek Park that can last up to 1 1/2 hours.

Frosh, he said, is available for advice. They often talk and text.

“He’s a model public servant and someone I would hope to emulate in my service,” Smith said. “And the state is better off for him having been in office. We owe him a great debt of gratitude.”

‘I think his legacy will be less than fully realized’

Not everyone, though, has agreed with Frosh on policy.

Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, an organization that seeks to preserve and advance the rights of gun owners, said the group has had its “fair share of crossing swords with the attorney general.”

The assistant attorneys general, he noted, have been “thoroughly professional.”

Pennak said Maryland Shall Issue has advocated against Frosh’s policy positions and believes that they’re about to largely be undone following the Supreme Court’s recent opinion holding that New York’s law on concealed carry permits was unconstitutional.

The Firearm Safety Act of 2013 — the law that, in part, bans certain semiautomatic weapons and requires people to obtain a permit to buy a handgun in Maryland — is still being litigated and attacked on different fronts in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Pennak said.

“I think his legacy will be less than fully realized,” Pennak said. “I think, ultimately, his gun control agenda is going to fail.”

Meanwhile, Frosh’s office has consistently fought to uphold the conviction of Syed, now 41, who was found guilty in 2000 in Baltimore Circuit Court of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment in the killing of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School.

That’s much to the ire of Syed’s supporters. Syed has always maintained his innocence.

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office filed a motion this year to throw out Syed’s conviction after reporting that an almost one-year investigation uncovered that prosecutors did not turn over exculpatory evidence and developed information about two possible alternative suspects.

But Frosh disputed that his office withheld evidence and added that motion had “serious problems.” State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby fired back, accusing Frosh of willfully sitting on that information and denying Syed the right to a fair trial.

The Maryland Office of the Attorney General has sided during the litigation with Steve Kelly, an attorney representing Young Lee, Hae Min Lee’s brother, who asserts that his client was neither provided adequate notice nor a meaningful opportunity to participate in the court proceedings.

Kelly is asking the Appellate Court of Maryland to order a new hearing.

‘He served for the right reason’

When Frosh ran for attorney general, he decided it was the last elected office that he’d seek.

Friends, he said, pushed him to run for governor. But Frosh he said there is “a bunch of ceremonial stuff” that comes with the job, which does not “light him up.”

Frosh said he loves serving as attorney general. He frequently compliments his staff, joking that it’s his job to take credit for their great work. But after 36 years in public office, Frosh said, it seemed like a reasonable time to quit.

“If I wasn’t going to quit at age 76, when am I going to quit?” Frosh said. “If I’m going to do anything else in my life, this is the only opportunity, I think.”

“It seemed appropriate to me to let somebody younger have a shot at it,” he added.

His successor, U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Maryland, noted that some joke that the National Association of Attorneys General, or NAAG, alternatively stands for the National Association of Aspiring Governors.

Brown said there’s nothing wrong with seeking higher political office. Frosh, though, felt that the role of attorney general was important — and not a steppingstone in his career.

“Brian ran for the right reasons. And he served for the right reason,” said Brown, who added that he has “big shoes to fill.”

Frosh said he’s not planning to sit on the beach or do the crossword puzzle all day. He’s interested in doing work in areas including climate, poverty, democracy and gun violence. He said he did not feel that it was appropriate to search for a job while serving as attorney general.

“But,” he said, “I hope I can contribute something outside the office.”