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Attorney General

Updated on May 15, 2010

The Attorney General  is the chief legal officer of a government. His principal duties are to advise the executive branch of the government on questions of law, to represent the government in legal controversies to which it is a party, to appear personally in the courts in important cases, to supervise the prosecution of criminal cases, and to institute legal proceedings in matters affecting the welfare of the people or of the state at large.

United States

The attorney general of the United States is a member of the cabinet, appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. As the chief legal officer of the federal government, he renders legal opinions to the president of the United States and to the heads of the executive departments of the government; supervises the administration of the Department of Justice; directs special matters relating to national defense; directs the federal penitentiaries and other penal institutions; supervises the work of the United States attorneys and their assistants and the United States marshals and deputy marshals; approves abstracts of title for lands acquired by the government for various civil and military uses; supervises all civil and Criminal litigation to which the government is a party; represents the United States in legal matters generally; appears in the Supreme Court of the United States in matters of exceptional importance; and provides special counsel for the United States in cases where such action is required. The published opinions of the attorney general, although not having the force of law, are recognized as providing authoritative guidance on the subjects covered.

The post of attorney general was created by the Judiciary Act of 1789. In 1870, Congress passed a law establishing the Department of Justice, in recognition of the great expansion of the office of the attorney general during the years since its creation. This enactment made the attorney general the head of the newly established department, provided for a solicitor general and two assistant attorneys general, gave to the attorney general the direction and control of United States attorneys and all other counsel employed on behalf of the United States, and vested in him supervisory powers over the accounts of district attorneys, marshals, clerks, and other officers of the federal courts. In 1871 Congress began the long series of enactments providing for the control and supervision of federal prisons and prisoners by the attorney general. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, established in 1908, developed from a force of examiners at first hired by the attorney general from other departments.

The attorney general exercises most of his functions through the Department of Justice, which he heads. His chief aides are the deputy attorney general, the executive assistant to the attorney general, the solicitor general, nine assistant attorneys general, the directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Prisons, the associate commissioner of federal prison industries, the pardon attorney, the commissioner of immigration and naturalization, the chairmen of the Board of Immigration Appeals and of the Board of Parole, and the director of public information. The attorney general also supervises all United States attorneys and marshals, as well as the field office personnel of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The deputy attorney general, who is the second-ranking official of the Department of Justice, assists the attorney general in the overall supervision and direction of the department, maintains liaison between the department and Congress, and handles legislative proposals prepared in the department or referred to it for its views. He performs all the duties of the attorney general in his absence or in the event of a vacancy in the office. The solicitor general is directly in charge of all government litigation in the Supreme Court of the United States. He supervises the preparation of briefs and the presentation of oral arguments, and appears in person or is represented by members of his staff in court. The chief divisions of the department, each headed by an assistant attorney general, are the Criminal Division, Antitrust Division, Tax Division, Lands Division, Civil Division, Civil Rights Division, Internal Security Division, and the Office of Legal Counsel. In addition to these eight assistants, an administrative assistant attorney general is responsible for management, fiscal, and personnel matters in the department.

The duties of the attorneys general of the individual states vary according to the statutory provisions establishing the office. Most of the statutes are more or less declaratory of the common law, and it is usually held that the attorney general, in addition to the powers expressly conferred by the legislature, has all the common law powers and duties pertaining to the office. He represents the state in all litigation of a public character, and can participate in private litigation that has a bearing on the interests of the general public or affects its welfare. He also gives legal advice to the chief executive and heads of departments on questions arising from their official duties. Among particular proceedings that can be instituted by a state attorney general are actions to abate public nuisances, to enforce charitable trusts, and to recover public offices from those who wrongfully assume to be their lawful occupants.


The attorney general of the Dominion of Canada is the chief legal adviser of the government and a cabinet minister. Bearing also the title of minister of justice, he is the head of the Department of Justice. His principal assistant is the solicitor general. The attorney general appears on behalf of the government in important cases in the courts, has general responsibility for the courts and their employees, and supervises the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The enforcement of criminal law is usually left to provinical officials; consequently, the federal attorney general confines his work in this field to supervision, the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy, and the administration of penitentiaries.

The attorney general of Canada has an additional special function, arising out of the negative legislative attorney that the federal cabinet possesses in the provincial field. Any act of any provincial legislature may be rendered void by an order-in-council passed by the cabinet within one year after the receipt of such act by the federal government. This power of veto, or "disallowance," generally invoked only where provincial legislation is illegal or unconstitutional, where it conflicts with federal legislation on the same subject, or where it adversely affects national interests, is exercised by the cabinet upon the recommendation of the attorney general.


The office of attorney general in England began to assume its modern shape only during the 16th century, and did not substantially attain it until the end of the 17th century. By that time, the attorney general and the solicitor general had become legal advisers of the crown and, either in person or by their deputies, appeared on behalf of the crown in the courts. They gave legal advice to all departments of the state and appeared for them in court cases. They were from time to time summoned to appear before the House of Lords to give advice. Either the attorney general or the solicitor general was always a member of the House of Commons. They came to be regarded as the leaders and representatives of the bar, and as their position became increasingly important they were made members of the ministry.

In modern times, the attorney general is the chief legal officer of the crown, and is a member of the ministry and sometimes of the cabinet. The office is conferred by patent and is held at the pleasure of the crown. The attorney general is the solicitor general, also a member of the ministry, but not of the cabinet, upon whom his duties devolve during his absence or incapacity. The crown is represented by separate law officers for Scotland, Northern Ireland, Lancaster, and Durham.

The attorney general is the head of the bar, represents the crown in the courts in all matters in which rights of a public character come into question, and is the legal adviser to all public departments. He is responsible for the conduct of all suits, civil or criminal, in which the crown is interested, and has general supervisory powers in connection with the administration of the criminal law. He advises the crown on peerage cases, and acts as prosecutor both for the House of Lords and for the House of Commons. Where the institution of an action is necessary to enforce the execution of a charitable trust, to remedy any abuse or misapplication of charitable funds, or to administer a charity, the attorney general is the proper plaintiff, acting either on the initiative of the crown or at the request of a private individual, called a "relator".


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