By JENNIFER GABLE
ANNAPOLIS, Md.- Attorney General Anthony Brown was among the winners in the race to get legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly in the session that ended Monday. Despite serving only three months, he was able to shepherd his top two legislative priorities, civil rights enforcement and the authority to prosecute police-involved fatalities through the legislature, and both are expected to become law.
Brown took office in January, replacing former Attorney General Brian Frosh and becoming Maryland’s first Black attorney general.
Brown’s extensive legislative experience likely played a role in the passage of his agenda within his first 100 days as attorney general. Brown, a Democrat, represented the 4th Congressional District from 2017 to 2023, forgoing reelection to that office to run for AG. Brown also served as Maryland’s lieutenant governor from 2007 to 2015 and as a Maryland House of Delegates member from 1999 to 2007.
“We articulated a number of priorities coming into office, and a focus primarily on what we needed to accomplish in the first 90 days in the legislative session,” said Brown in an interview with Capital News Service. His “top priority” was the establishment of “civil rights enforcement authority” in his office, said Brown in an interview with Capital News Service.
He managed that goal with SB 540, “Civil Rights Enforcement – Powers of the Attorney General,” which, if signed by the governor, would authorize the Office of the Attorney General to investigate, bring civil prosecutions and remediate any civil rights violations. It would also establish a civil rights enforcement fund to be used for enforcement, community outreach and education.
This bill, which would be effective Oct. 1, would allow the attorney general to enforce federal and state civil rights laws, a power held currently by 21 attorney generals around the country. In Maryland, The Maryland Commission on Civil Rights has been the only state entity with enforcement power for 53 years. It looks into cases of housing, employment, and public accommodation discrimination, among other civil rights problems. Brown said that the commission has limited resources to do this job, and the AG’s office would have more power and resources to assist in enforcing civil rights violations.
“Maryland’s law is pretty strong – we don’t tolerate discriminatory practices against members of the LGBTQIA+ community, based on race, ethnicity, or source of income,” said Brown to Capital News Service. “We are not talking about expanding either the classes of protected peoples or the practices that are deemed discriminatory, but just giving us the authority to enforce it.”
Opponents criticized the civil rights enforcement bill saying it could put a financial strain on small businesses facing unwarranted allegations of discrimination.
“What the attorney general is proposing in SB 0540 raises several concerns,” wrote the Howard County Chamber of Commerce in February, “if businesses were to be overwhelmed by punitive, litigation and fines that would exacerbate the negative perception of Maryland’s business climate.”
Brown acknowledged these concerns stating, “This is not about the size of the business; it’s not about targeting people; it is about targeting discriminatory practices.”
Lisae Jordan, executive director and counsel for The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the bill also was a priority for her organization.
“Ending discrimination, including sexual harassment, is important for all of us and it makes sense for our state’s top attorney to be able to respond when civil rights laws are violated,” she said.
Another of Brown’s successful priorities was SB 0290, which would expand the power of the AG’s Independent Investigations Division to investigate and prosecute police-involved fatalities and serious injuries.
Under current law, the attorney general can investigate police-involved incidents, but they must send the evidence to the local state’s attorney, who then decides whether to prosecute.
“That is just fraught with problems,” said Brown, adding that these local state’s attorneys often have a close relationship with the police departments, which can influence the objectivity of these investigations and prosecutions.
“If you believe you need independent investigations, then why wouldn’t that be the case for prosecutions?” said Brown.
Independent investigations for policing largely came into public discussion in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin and other officers. The Independent Investigations Division was not created until the spring of 2021.
This bill would create greater public confidence in the legal process when police officers are involved in a death or injury, Brown said.
“It’s not just the prosecution, but even the decision not to prosecute, when the Office of The Attorney General looks at it and says, we don’t believe there’s significant evidence here or cause to bring a prosecution, we believe that the public will have greater confidence in it.”
The Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform supported the bill through written testimony in February. “85% of Marylanders surveyed support the concept of an independent prosecutor when police conduct is alleged,” wrote Phil Caroom of the MAJR Executive Committee. “The local prosecutors themselves are conflicted because they work with the very same police officers on a daily basis,” wrote Caroom.
Police agencies were less enthusiastic. The State Law Enforcement Officers Labor Alliance, which represents 1,757 active state law enforcement officers, testified in bill hearings that it’s concerned that the legislation removes local, elected state’s attorneys from the process.
“SB 290 eliminates the checks and balances in the Judicial System and would allow for the Independent Investigations Division unit to operate unchecked. With unchecked power, the IID unit could essentially ruin the lives and families of police officers doing their jobs to protect citizens,” wrote Brian Gill, alliance president. “No one group in government should ever have ultimate authority over any of its citizens.”
Both bills passed the General Assembly in the final days of the session. The Civil Rights Enforcement bill passed third reader in the House with a vote of 100-34 on April 5, and the Authority to Prosecute bill passed third reader in the House with a vote of 99-37 on April 6. Both bills were approved in the Senate, and await Gov. Wes Moore’s signature.
“In the coming days, the governor will conduct a thorough and deliberate review of the bills passed through the General Assembly and will act with Marylanders’ best interests at the top of mind,” said a spokesman for the governor’s office.
Despite these big wins for Brown, he didn’t get everything he wanted. He was eager to see the passage of legislation for juvenile justice reform, specifically through a bill proposed by Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore City, and cross-filed by Del. Charlotte Crutchfield, D-Montgomery, which would have limited the types of offenses committed by children that automatically go to adult court.
The bill, The Youth Equity and Safety Act, stalled in committee, despite having support from the ACLU, the Office of the Public Defender, and the Office of the Attorney General.
“I have no doubt it will be back next year, and I hope to work with the sponsor, and the other stakeholders in the interim to get a bill into shape,” said Brown. “I’m confident that next year we’ll get something done.”