How an Attorney General Works


By Sarah Winkler

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president of the United States of America. In keeping with his historic campaign and election, Obama nominated Eric Holder to serve in his Cabinet as the United States attorney general. Holder’s career, like Obama’s, is full of a history of African-American firsts. Holder was the first African-American to serve as the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., and the first African-American to be deputy attorney general. As attorney general, he is now the highest-ranking African-American person in law enforcement in the United States.

Holder’s position in the government is obviously an important one. As attorney general, Holder guides the world’s largest law office and leads the agency responsible for enforcing federal laws.

The attorney general is the legal advisor to the government. On the federal level in the United States, the Office of the Attorney General heads the Department of Justice and is the federal government’s chief law enforcement officer. The attorney general is responsible for legally representing the United States and advising the president and heads of executive departments when their opinion is needed. The attorney general also may appear before the Supreme Court.

In addition to the U.S. attorney general, there are attorney generals in each of the 50 states. They serve as legal advisors for their states’ governments and as their chief law enforcement officers. In some states, the state attorney general, like the federal attorney general, is the head of the state department of justice.

What Does an Attorney General Do?

The attorney general holds a power of attorney in representing a government in all legal matters. The attorney general is nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. There is no designated term for the attorney general; rather, the president can remove him or her from the office at any time. Additionally, the attorney general can be impeached and tried by Congress if deemed necessary.

As head of the Department of Justice and chief legal counsel to the president, the attorney general’s duties are obviously important and wide-reaching. The attorney general prosecutes cases that involve the government and advises the president and heads of the executive departments when needed.

As the Department of Justice’s chief officer, the attorney general enforces federal laws, provides legal counsel in federal cases, interprets the laws that govern executive departments, heads federal jails and penal institutions, and examines alleged violations of federal laws. The attorney general may also be called upon to represent the United States in the Supreme Court in exceptional importance cases. The attorney general serves in the Cabinet of the president of the United States.

The attorney general is in charge of supervising United States attorneys and marshals in their respective judicial districts. While attorneys are responsible for prosecuting offenses against the United States and prosecuting or defending in proceedings in which the United States requires representation, marshals issue orders and processes under the United States’ authority.

States attorney generals have many of the same duties as the federal attorney general but on a smaller statewide scale. The specific duties of the attorney general vary from state to state. Some attorney generals are elected in statewide contests, while others are appointed by the governor, legislature, or supreme court.

The projects that an attorney general can take on are wide-ranging. For example, Eric Holder has voiced opinions on waterboarding, the close of Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and the transfer of accused terrorists to jails on U.S. soil. On the state level, attorney generals might challenge the constitutionality of a law. In recent news, 11 state attorney generals have moved to challenge the healthcare reform bill’s constitutionality.

History of an Attorney General

The concept of an attorney general dates back to the Anglo-Norman system of government. During this time, French legal terms were introduced into the English system of government. The first mention of the term attorney Regis, or “king’s attorney,” was made in 1253. In 1472, the first formal appointment was made


The attorney general’s office has always been of great importance; the attorney general was both legal representative of the king and royal government as well as the parens patriae, or “guardian of public interests.” As such, the attorney general was charged with protecting both the crown and the public’s rights.

The history of the attorney general in the United States dates back to the American Revolution and establishing a federal government free from Great Britain. Although Americans did not want to create a monarchy like Britain’s, they thought it was important to institute an office similar to the British attorney general. The Judiciary Act of 1789, passed by the First Congress and signed into law by President George Washington, established the attorney general’s office. According to the provisions made when creating the office, the United States attorney general would be appointed by the United States president.

Since 1870 and the Department of Justice’s establishment as a part of the government’s executive branch, the U.S. attorney general has headed the world’s largest law office. Throughout the history of the office, 81 Americans have served as attorney general.

When individual states were drafting their constitutions, most modeled their government on the federal system and thus established the attorney general’s office on a state level. Most attorney generals are elected, while others are appointed by the governor, legislature, or supreme court.

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