Facing Trump and a Republican governor, Democrats empowered Maryland attorney general

Faced with Republicans in both the White House and the governor's mansion, Maryland's Democratic state lawmakers left behind a kind of night watchman as they begin a nine-month stretch away from Annapolis.

The Democrat-dominated General Assembly adjourned Monday having passed a series of bills bolstering the authority of Maryland's unusually weak attorney general's office.

The new powers will help Democrats pursure their priorities outside of the legislature's annual 90-day session. Republicans warn the changes inject politics into an office that has broad responsibility to provide impartial legal advice to state officials of both parties.

Before adjourning last week, the assembly voted to give Attorney General Brian E. Frosh the power to sue drug makers over sharp pharmaceutical price increases. Earlier in the session, lawmakers agreed to give him the authority to sue the federal government without seeking the governor's permission, and approved $1 million and new staff to pursue such litigation.

Democrats have won every election for attorney general since 1923.

Frosh said the new authority is important because independent state attorneys general could be one of the few checks on the government of Republican President Donald J. Trump.

"We are at a very unusual crossroads in our country," Frosh said. "We have a president who does not seem to respect the norms of democracy — some say he doesn't respect the rule of law — and the Republicans in Congress seem unwilling to challenge."

Sen. Robert Cassilly, a Harford County Republican, said the changes gave the attorney general powers beyond those that were contemplated when the office was created in the state constitution. The attorney general is supposed to represent both the General Assembly and the governor, Cassilly said, but now has great independence.

During a debate on the drug pricing bill, Cassilly suggested that his colleagues were a little too enamored of Frosh.

"I for one do not abide in the motto 'Brian do we trust,'" he said.

Democrats said the deep respect they have for Frosh — who served 28 years in the General Assembly — played a major role in their decision to empower his office.

Frosh was greeted like a celebrity when he walked onto the floor of the state Senate on the session's last day. Finance Committee Chairman Thomas "Mac" Middleton threw an arm around him.

"We love our A.G.," Middleton said.

In the session's final days, Frosh sat through hours of hearings on a bill that would have largely undone a Court of Appeals rule severely limiting the role of money bail in the system of freeing people from jail before trial. The judiciary adopted the rule after Frosh advised that it was likely unconstitutional to hold someone merely because they couldn't afford bail.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chairwoman of the House committee handling that measure, said Frosh showed "his dedication and commitment to making real change."

The acclaim for Frosh is not universal. Protesters outside the State House Monday expressed their disapproval — one of their signs simply read: "Froshhole."

The resolution that empowered Frosh to take on the federal government passed without a single Republican voting for it. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, declined to sign the related measure providing funding and staff for Frosh's anti-Trump efforts, instead letting it go into law without his signature.

The biggest shift was giving the attorney general unilateral authority to bring cases against the federal government. Under the state's constitution, the attorney general's office needs the go-ahead from either the governor or the General Assembly to take action, a limitation faced by just a handful of state attorneys general around the nation.

Frosh was quick to use his new powers, joining a Washington state lawsuit in March that challenged Trump's executive orders barring entry to the United States by people from a group of majority Muslim nations.

Republican attorneys general behaved similarly during the presidency of Democrat Barack Obama. GOP-led states challenged Obama on the Affordable Care Act, expansive new environmental rules and changes to immigration enforcement.

Democrats in Maryland's General Assembly also voted to pay for a team of lawyers in the attorney general's office to battle federal authorities, copying an approach adopted by Republicans in Oklahoma.

But the long-term significance of the Maryland attorney general's enhanced power is not clear.

J. Joseph Curran Jr., Maryland's attorney general from 1987 until 2007, said he once wanted to join an environmental lawsuit against the Republican administration of President George W. Bush. Then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, wouldn't grant permission. But once Democrat Martin O'Malley was elected governor, Curran's successor, Douglas F. Gansler, was allowed to join the case.

"I never understood why the attorney general needed the governor's sign off on any case," Gansler said in interview.

The boost in status of the attorney general's office could alter its political stature.

In states like New York and California, the attorney general's post has been a regular stepping stone toward becoming governor or a U.S. Senator. That hasn't happened in Maryland in recent decades. Curran never sought another office after being elected attorney general. Gansler ran for governor in 2014, but lost in the Democratic primary. Frosh insists he's not interested in higher office.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, who is considering a run for governor, said the knowledge that Frosh was not seeking a new job made it easier to empower him.

"Because he has spoken about not seeking a different office, I think there is a lot of faith in him as a result," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "He's going to do this in a judicious manner that's in the best interests of the state rather than trying to further his career."

Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, said if the attorney general's job gains a reputation for being a more independent source of power and prestige, it might attract candidates ultimately on the hunt for more.

Previously, the office wasn't considered in that way "because there were limits on what the attorney general could do," Eberly said. "We've just removed some of that."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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