The next attorney general will take over what is essentially the largest law firm in Maryland, overseeing a staff of hundreds of lawyers who must represent the people and government of the state.
Four candidates are vying for the job of Maryland’s chief legal officer, which Attorney General Brian E. Frosh will leave at the end of his current term.
Former Baltimore judge Katie Curran O’Malley formally joined the race in December. She will face off against U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown in the Democratic primary.
The two opponents have worked together in the past: Brown served as lieutenant governor to O’Malley’s husband, former Gov. Martin O’Malley, from 2007 through 2015.
The Republican field includes Jim Shalleck, a former prosecutor and Montgomery County elections official whose focus is primarily on fighting crime; and Michael Peroutka, a former member of Anne Arundel County Council with past ties to the League of the South, an organization that is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of its racist, white-nationalist views.
The Maryland State Bar Association this week hosted one-hour interviews with each of the attorney general candidates in order to keep the legal community informed about the race.
The Daily Record attended the interviews, which were conducted by MSBA President M. Natalie McSherry and former Maryland Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who works with the MSBA on its advocacy efforts. The interviews will also be published on the MSBA’s website.
This is the second of two stories about the candidates. The first, which focused on Brown and Shalleck, was published earlier this week.
Katie Curran O’Malley
O’Malley emphasized her years spent as a prosecutor in Baltimore County and as a District Court judge in Baltimore.
“You need to have the experience of being a trial lawyer to be attorney general,” she said. “After being in courtrooms for 30 years, I feel as though I can do something different. I really have the desire to get back into the courtroom as an advocate.”
O’Malley served as an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore County before becoming a District Court judge in Baltimore in 2001. She retired last year as she prepared to launch her bid for attorney general.
O’Malley on Thursday also pointed to the influence of her father, J. Joseph Curran Jr., a lawyer who served as Maryland’s attorney general for two decades.
She said her priorities as attorney general would be protecting Marylanders in a variety of ways, including in the areas of criminal justice, environmental protection and consumer rights; representing the state in civil litigation; and attracting “the brightest lawyers possible” to staff the office.
O’Malley said she is hopeful that a Democratic governor will be elected so that she can successfully advocate for increased salaries for assistant attorneys general.
“Right now the salaries are not competitive,” she said.
O’Malley would also push the governor to better staff state agencies that are involved in public safety, such as parole and probation, so that offenders are supervised more closely.
She said her background as a prosecutor and a judge would prepare her to lead the attorney general’s Organized Crime Unit, which can handle multi-jurisdictional prosecutions and cases involving gang violence, firearms, and drugs.
Gun violence, O’Malley said, is “a public health issue. Gun violence in our state is taking the lives of so many young men and women, children and seniors. … What you really need in a leader is someone who collaborates.”
Like her Democratic opponent, O’Malley said she supports expanding the office’s responsibilities to include prosecuting police officers based on investigations into deadly use of force.
The General Assembly authorized the Attorney General’s Office to investigate police-involved deaths in 2021, and is considering legislation this year to broaden that authority to include prosecutions.
She also supports expanding access to legal counsel in civil proceedings, a cause that Frosh has championed in the legislature. Lawmakers passed a bill last year that created a right to counsel for some low-income tenants in eviction cases, but have not yet funded the program.
O’Malley said she would advocate for counsel in eviction cases and in cases involving protective orders, which are typically used to separate domestic abusers from their victims.
As attorney general, O’Malley would also prioritize environmental issues, she said, and would publicize key metrics to show how Maryland is doing when it comes to reducing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
“I think quarterly the attorney general should be making those standards that we’re trying to achieve public so that we know where we’re getting,” she said.
As attorney general, Peroutka said, his goal would be to “return the state and return our culture to a constitutional form of government.”
He said the public health measures taken over the past two years in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 were an example of “lawlessness” by government officials who overstepped their authority by mandating masks and restricting personal gatherings.
“The last two years have seen lawlessness from the top of government in Maryland,” he said. “There’s no COVID-19 exception to the bill of rights.”
Peroutka said he worked in private legal practice with his brother for 27 years, specializing in creditors’ rights. He was elected to Anne Arundel County Council in 2014. He also ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004 as a member of the Constitution Party.
He is now running as a Republican for attorney general. He has frequently courted controversy, including his past association with a white-nationalist group called the League of the South, which advocates for “southern independence.”
Peroutka said he cut ties with the organization when one of its leaders made comments opposing interracial marriage.
“I didn’t agree with that, so I left the organization when that happened,” Peroutka said. But he declined to disavow some of the group’s other beliefs, including that southern states should be able to govern themselves.
“It had to do with complaints about government that was out of control,” Peroutka said of his association with the group. “I agree with them about that.”
Peroutka also founded the Institute on the Constitution, which teaches what it calls the “American view” that rights come from God and that the purpose of government is to protect those God-given rights.
He said that as attorney general, his obligation would be to the Constitution and to God’s law, not to laws passed by the legislature that, in his view, don’t comport with Christian moral code.
For example, he would not defend Maryland laws that protect the right to abortion, and he views same-sex marriage as not legitimate law because it violates biblical rules.
“I think the higher calling would be to protect innocent life,” he said of abortion. “We have no right to do what God says is wrong.”
“Probably the most dangerous place that anybody can be in America now is inside a mother’s womb,” he said.
Peroutka also enumerated his concerns with public education, including his belief that free schooling was designed to indoctrinate children away from a Christian way of life. He said that as attorney general, his responsibility would be to represent Maryland’s Board of Education to the best of his ability, but that he would not hide his personal views about public education.
The attorney general’s oath of office, he said, is a promise made before God to uphold the Constitution. When asked about citizens who don’t believe in a creator, he said that his oath “would require me to treat them fairly and equally under the law.”
But an oath taken by someone who does not believe in God, he said, “I think, would be a nullity.”
He also argued that his obligation would not be to the law as interpreted by the courts, but as defined by God.
“There are two standards to determine if something is lawful,” he said. “Not what a court says, but whether it meets the constitutional limitations of government, and it has to be harmonious with God’s law.”