Attorney General 101
The AG’s Office
In a state, US territory, and the District of Columbia, the AG’s office, sometimes called the Department of Justice, is the agency that supports the AG’s work. The office typically consists of attorneys, called assistants or deputies, as well as investigators, support staff, and even state police. The AG leads the office and may have a leadership team that includes a chief deputy or first assistant attorney general, chief of staff, policy counsel, and general counsel. The size of the office depends on the state, but they often rival the largest law firms in the state.
The AG’s Role
What does an AG do?
Acts as the “People’s Lawyer.” The AG is the guardian of the legal rights of the residents, organizations, and natural resources of the state or territory they represent. The AG advocates for those whose rights or interests are threatened – whether by corporations, governments, or private actors. The AG looks out for the public interest and will take legal action to protect taxpayers, residents, the environment, and victims of crimes.
Protects residents from illegal federal action
Sometimes the federal government takes action that harms state residents. Where that action violates a federal statute or the Constitution, the AG may sue the federal government on behalf of the state’s residents. See, for example, attorneys general sue the Trump administration over Postal Service changes. AGs may also share their opinion in federal cases through amici briefs. An AG submits an amici brief when they are not a party to the case, but believe that the decision will impact their state’s residents and want to ensure the court hears their voice as it weighs its decision. For example, in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the Supreme Court determined that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage, AGs submitted amici briefs both supportingEditSign and opposingEditSign same-sex marriage.
Many AGs protect consumers from fraudulent or deceptive business practices. AG offices will often offer a hotline or complaint form that residents can submit. The office may be able to help consumers get money back or resolve a dispute with a business. Where a business engages in widespread fraudulent or deceptive practices, the AG’s office may investigate and bring a legal action against the business. AGs recover millions of dollars each year for consumers and taxpayers.
Enforces civil rights laws
In many states, the AG enforces state civil rights laws, which protect residents from discrimination. Residents can file a complaint with the office if they believe they have been the victim of discrimination in violation of state law, which often includes discrimination based on race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or national origin. For example, see the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division.
Represents the state
The AG represents the government in most lawsuits and actions in which the state is a party. AGs represent the state when it acts as a business, such as in negotiating contracts, in employment cases involving state officials, and in lawsuits such as personal injury claims against state officials. The AG also represents the state when it acts as a government, defending the state against legal challenges to statutes, regulations, and other government actions. State officials who are sued for actions taken in the course of their official duties are generally represented by the AG. For example, see the North Carolina Department of Justice’s Legal Services Division.
Advises the government
Many AGs act as advisors to state government. They may be called upon by the state legislature or the governor to provide a legal opinion about a statute or regulation. Their published opinions or formal letters may become the official legal opinion of the state. Some AGs also advise state agencies and act as their legal counsel. For example, see the Vermont Attorney General’s General Counsel and Administrative Law Division.
Charitable not-for-profit organizations must register with the AG in many states. The AG ensures that the charity operates for the benefit of its charitable mission and does not mislead donors. The AG can investigate charities to ensure they comply with state law and to keep them from misusing donor money. For example, see the Oregon Department of Justice Charitable Activities Division.
Conducts criminal prosecutions and appeals
In many states, the AG oversees a criminal division that prosecutes certain cases and handles appeals. Most criminal prosecutions are handled by district attorneys, who are independently elected state or county officials. But certain crimes are by statute given to the AG to prosecute. This could include crimes that cross multiple county jurisdictions, first-degree murder cases involving the death penalty, public corruption cases, organized crime, and cybercrime. In many states, the AG also handles criminal appeals. That means defending a case when the defendant appeals their guilty verdict. These are cases heard by the state court of appeals or state supreme court. For example, see the New Jersey Department of Law and Justice Division of Criminal Justice.
Investigates Medicaid fraud
Medicaid is a federal program to provide health care to people living near or below the poverty line. The program is administered by the states and funded jointly by federal and state governments. Most AG offices have a Medicaid fraud division that investigates fraudulent claims, often by health care providers or others seeking payments under the Medicaid program. The divisions may also investigate abuse and neglect of patients in health care facilities funded by the Medicaid program, such as nursing homes. These divisions can save taxpayers millions of dollars a year. For example, see the Idaho Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.
Other AG Roles
AGs can have many more roles. Here are some examples of divisions you might find in an AG’s office:
- Open Government and State Public Records/Freedom of Information Act enforcement
- Capital Litigation (Death penalty prosecution and appeals)
- Child Protection
- Environmental Protection
- Financial Crimes and Special Investigations
- Gaming Enforcement
- Health Care and Public Health
- Natural Resources
- Professional Licensing
- State Tax Enforcement
- Utilities or Ratepayer Advocate
- Victim Services
Issues State AGs Work On
In their capacity as elected officials or as executive officers of the state, AGs work on any number of policy priorities, including:
- Reforming the criminal justice system
- Mitigating climate change
- Fighting for racial justice
- Protecting the environment and natural resources
- Protecting workers’ rights
- Protecting women’s reproductive rights
- Protecting voters
- Protecting students from predatory for-profit colleges and lenders
- Combating the opioid epidemic
- Protecting residents from scams and misinformation surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic
- Protecting workers from wage theft
- Ensuring government transparency
- Fighting public corruption
- Fighting for access to quality health care
- Protecting immigrants
- AG Power and Authority
As elected or appointed government officials, AGs have many tools at their disposal to perform their duties. They can file actions in court against individuals, companies, or even the federal government. They can conduct investigations into wrongdoing. They can request documents and information as part of those investigations, including issuing subpoenas, which are legally enforceable demands for documents or information.
In some states, the AG has concurrent jurisdiction with the district attorneys, meaning that an AG can prosecute any criminal case that a district attorney can prosecute.
In many states, the AG writes regulations to supplement their enforcement powers, for example around non-profit/charities or consumer protection.
AGs also have broad investigative and enforcement powers under the legal principle of parens patriae, which means the responsibility to protect citizens who cannot protect themselves. Sometimes, and the AG can take action to protect citizens even where there is no specific statute granting the AG authority to act.
AGs also work with their state legislatures to propose and promote legislation to improve the laws. AGs have unique insights as prosecutors, regulators, and advocates. They bring an important voice and perspective to the legislative process.