When we hear the term Attorney General, the image that comes to mind is of a high-ranking officer of the armed forces or a stately official of the administration. While attorneys general is not part of the military, they play a vital role in the administrative system of a nation.
When we consider the question, ‘what does an attorney general do?‘ The answer is simple: he represents the state in all legal matters where the state may have an interest in the outcome of litigation or has been named as a party; and serves as the primary legal advisor to the state’s legislators and other government agencies, offices, boards, etc.
1. Attorney General
The Attorney General (AG) is the First Law Officer of the nation or state, whose chief responsibilities are to supervise the rule of law, preserve the integrity of the Courts, and provide legal services to a nation.
The AG is a lawyer by tradition who serves the role of the primary legal adviser to the government. As is the case, in most common law systems, the attorney general is the chief legal officer entrusted with the administration of justice. Within some government systems, we also see the attorneys general responsible for local law enforcement and the state’s legal affairs.
A person in this role must ensure that the law is applied and enforced equally and justly. Additionally, they must ensure that the three branches of the government- the legislature, executive, and judiciary- are kept in check and balance is maintained between them, simultaneously ensuring that each of these branches is accountable to the people.
2. History of the Attorney General
The Attorney General’s office is generally seen in almost all countries where the English Legal System has taken root. And we wonder, “when did it all begin?”
The answer is that while the attorney general’s office goes back to the European Middle Ages, we didn’t see it adopt its modern form until the 16th century.
The premise of an attorney general dates back to the Anglo-Norman regime. French legal terms were introduced into the English system of government during this time, and the first mention of ‘attornus regis’ or ‘king’s attorney’ was noted in the 13th century.
The attorney general’s office has always been of great importance, as he represented the king and the royal government. Initially, the king’s attorneys were appointed only for specific cases, courts, or businesses; however, the beginning of the 15th century saw the attorney general become a regular appointee. Eventually, he obtained the right to appoint deputies, transforming into an influential figurehead of justice as the medieval system faded away and a modern political and judicial system was slowly implemented.
The history of the Attorney General in the United States of America is seen during the American Revolution and the formation of a federal government free from Britain. Though the people did not want a system of the monarchy to be put in place, they considered it necessary to introduce a role similar to an English attorney general’s office.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 instituted the office of the A.G., who, according to the newly established provisions, the President would appoint.
In 1870, the Department of Justice was established as a part of the executive, thus making the U.S. Attorney General the head of the largest law office in the world, like the federal system. While most state A.G.s are elected, the legislature, Supreme Court, or Governor of the state also play a part in their appointment.
3. Role of the Attorney General
The office of the Attorney General covers a broad range of duties and functions. The AG’s role is to be the promoter, preserver, and protector of the law. He must secure public confidence in the rule of law. Also, he should ensure that those in positions of power, be they in the Executive, Judiciary, Parliament, Community leadership, or even the media, adhere to all the rules and discharge all their responsibilities.
As a protector of the law, the A.G. must ensure that the law is permitted to take its course. Thus, he must continue to sustain the established traditions and procedures of law, like fair and speedy trials and the presumption of innocence. In criminal investigations, he must ensure that the matters are correctly dealt with by the police first and then by the judiciary and that no hoops are jumped.
The AG oversees the Attorney General’s Department, which provides appropriate legal advice to the administration over legal issues like constitutional law matters, institutional integrity, industrial relations, international law matters, workplace safety and health, fraud and anti-corruption, family law system, and public rights.
He must raise disputes anytime he notices the principles of law being violated and acquire and maintain community support for these foundations.
4. What does an Attorney General do?
The attorney general serves as the head of the Department of Justice. Thus, he is in charge of enforcing federal laws, offering legal advice in federal cases, interpreting laws governing executive departments, supervising federal prisons and jails, and investigating allegations of federal law violations. Additionally, the attorney general might have to represent the nation if the situation warrants.
Though there is a variation from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, the duties and functions of an A.G. typically comprise
4.1. Legal counsel to the President
The majority of attorneys general serve as legal counsel to the presidents of the nation they represent. The President establishes the national legal and criminal justice agenda, and the attorney general carries out his vision while providing legal advice on the feasibility of various initiatives.
4.2. Supervision of Government Prosecutors
To enforce federal law- the U.S. government employs a nationwide team of prosecutors known as the United States Attorneys. They serve as the nation’s chief litigators and work under the attorney general’s office.
4.3. Filing federal cases
The government files lawsuits under federal law through U.S. attorneys. These lawsuits are heard in federal courts, which include the United States Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. In many of these cases, the solicitor general, the U.S. chief prosecutor, collaborates with the attorney general.
4.4. Supervising criminal investigations
The AG is in charge of law enforcement, criminal cases, and investigations conducted by law enforcement agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the United States Marshals Service, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). All these agencies are part of the Justice Department, and their heads directly report to the attorney general.
4.5. Advocating public rights
The AG is responsible for defending citizens’ rights in civil liberties, civil rights, consumer protection, antitrust, human trafficking, drug trafficking, public health, child education, child support, and natural resource preservation. However, the A.G. does not provide legal services to private citizens.
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4.6. Legal Advisor
Among the most important roles of attorneys general is their role as legal advisors. They are responsible for issuing formal opinions to state agencies. The State AG is also required to present legal opinions interpreting state laws in case there ever arises a question of law.
4.7. Legal Representation
Another of the A.G.’s duties is the legal representation of the state and state agencies before a state or federal court.
4.8. Public Interests Representative
The A.G.s role includes a fair representation of the public interests in charitable trusts and solicitations.
Besides all the duties and functions mentioned above, the attorney general also has many other obligations. These include the institution of civil litigation on behalf of the states, enforcement of federal and state environmental law, running victim compensation programs, giving amicus briefs in the Supreme Court, proposing new legislation on behalf of the state, etc. Also, many municipalities have district attorneys who bring lawsuits on behalf of the state governments. They apply state laws and have to work in collaboration with their state’s AG.
5. State Attorney General vs. Federal (or National) Attorney General
As per the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a wide range of legal matters have fallen into the jurisdiction of individual states. The independent state government passes laws through a state legislature, further enforced through the state judicial system. And so, all states have their attorneys general tasked with prosecuting and enforcing state laws.
The difference in jurisdiction between a state attorney general and a national attorney general boils down to the laws at hand.
5.1. State Attorneys General enforce State Laws
When someone breaks state law but does not operate a criminal scheme that crosses state borders, such a case falls under the state attorney general’s jurisdiction to apply and enforce the applicable state laws. Such criminal matters cover arson, identity theft, theft, labor abuses, mortgage scams, murder, rape, corruption inside agencies of states, etc.
5.2. Federal Attorney Enforces Federal Laws, Constitutional Matters, and Interstate Commerce
Issues like terrorism, Medicaid fraud, interstate drug trafficking, and tax evasion fall under the province of a federal attorney. The AG may also involve themselves in matters wherein a person’s constitutional rights have been infringed upon. That is why subjects like free speech, voting access, and civil rights violations would fall under the dominion of the federal attorney general.
Conventionally, the role of an attorney general is deemed one of the most vital roles in the cabinet, alongside the roles of secretaries of defense and state.
We have learned that the attorney general plays a huge role in keeping the government functioning smoothly, especially on the legal front. As a counsel to the nation and state agencies and an advocate for public interests, it is of utmost importance that the A.G. maintains a balance between the state and public interest. Thus, the attorney general acts as the protector, preserver, and enforcer of the rule of law.