Attorney General office comparison
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- 1 Current officeholders
- 2 Qualifications
- 3 Elected vs. Appointed
- 4 Budgets and Official Compensation
- 5 Duties
- 6 Commentary
- 7 See also
- 8 External links
- 9 References
Today, the title of state attorney general is synonymous with "chief legal adviser," "chief law enforcement officer," "chief prosecutor," and even, at times, "top cop." Nearly every state's attorney general serves as chief legal adviser for the state government and is empowered to prosecute violations of state law, represent the state in legal disputes and issue legal advice to state agencies and the legislature.
The majority of attorneys general have a substantial influence on a state's approach to law enforcement. Attorneys general often set particular law enforcement priorities (e.g. drug law, civil rights violations or sexual crime) and focus extra resources on these issues. This puts them, in the words of the National Association of Attorneys General, at the "intersection of law and public policy." Fourty-four states publicly elect their attorneys general, reinforcing the office's relationship with, and direct accountability to, the people, in contrast with the Kings Attorneys of the past, whose duty to the serve the "governors," must have left those being "governed" under the law with something to be desired.
This page compares the office from state to state, examining similarities and differences such as how they win office, term limits, authority, budget, and duties.
The chart below is a breakdown of the political parties pertaining to the state executive office of attorney general. For other state executive offices, click here.
|Counts current as of February 2015. If you see an error, please email us|
List of Current Attorney Generals
Qualifications for the office of attorney general vary widely from state to state.
35 states have a formal provision specifying minimum age, while 15 have no formal provision.
Of the 35 states:
- 7 designate an officeholder must be at least 30 years of age. (FL, ID, KY, NM, NY, PA and VA)
- 10 require a minimum age of 25. (AL, AZ, GA, IL, LA, MT, NV, ND, UT and WV)
- 13 require a minimum age of 18. (AK, CA, CT, IA, MA, MI, NJ, OH, OR, RI, SD, VT and WA)
- 2, Minnesota and North Carolina, set the limit at 21.
- 1, Oklahoma, sets the limit at 31.
- 1, Colorado, sets the limit at 27.
- 1, Mississippi, sets the limit at 26.
43 states have a formal provision stating an attorney general must be a state resident, while 7 do not have a formal provision. Of the 43 states, 24 specify the number of years and 19 do not.
States that specify number of years as a state resident:
- 30 days - Minnesota and South Carolina
- 1 year - Hawaii, Missouri and Virginia
- 2 years - Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana and Nevada
- 3 years - Illinois
- 4 years - Georgia
- 5 years - Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Utah and West Virginia
- 7 years - Florida
38 states have a formal provision stating a attorney general must be a United States citizen, while 12 do not have a formal provision. Of the 38 states, 5 specify the number of years and 33 do not.
States that specify number of years as a United States citizen:
30 states have a formal provision stating a lieutenant governor must be a qualified voter, while 20 do not have a formal provision. Of the 30 states, only 1, Oklahoma, specifies the number of years and 29 do not.
States that do not require a law degree*: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Among these states, all but two, New Jersey, and Tennessee, are elected directly by the people.
*While a J.D. is not necessary in these states to qualify for the role of attorney general, all 19 officeholders do, in fact, hold law degrees, current as of October 2013. (See also: The education of state executive officials).
Elected vs. Appointed
Attorneys general are chosen in four different ways; they are either popularly elected or appointed by the governor, the state legislature, or the state supreme court. The office is elective in 43 states and chosen by a state government organ in 6.
- See also: State executives with term limits
Of the 50 Attorneys General, 25 do not have a formal provision specifying the number of terms allowed. Of the 44 elected attorneys general, all serve four-year terms with the exception of Vermont, who serves a two-year term.
- 11 face a two term limit, otherwise unspecified.
- 3, New Mexico, Rhode Island and South Dakota, are limited to serving two consecutive four-year terms, after which they must wait four years and/or one full term before being eligible again.
- 1, Montana, is limited to two terms (eight years) in any 16 year span.
- 1, Maine, can serve a maximum of four terms, each two years in length
- 1, Tennessee, is appointed by the State Supreme Court to serve a term of eight years.
- 1, Virginia, has a provision specifying an individual can serve as attorney general for an unlimited number of terms.
Budgets and Official Compensation
The difference in budgets for the offices across the states reaches $735,982,631. Nebraska has the smallest budget, spending only $5,795,369 a year on the attorney general's office, while California spends the most with a budget of $741,778,000. This can be because the number of divisions and support staff within the office varies widely from state to state. In Nebraska, the attorney general's office employs about 100 attorneys and support staff, while in California, the office employs over 1,100 attorneys alone.
While the salaries also differ, they do not necessarily coincide with the budgets. While Oregon is on our top five highest budgets chart, the attorney general has the second lowest salary, at $77,200. In fact, of the top five highest budgets, only Washington has a compensation also ranked in the top five. On the opposite end, no state appeared in both the low budget and low compensation charts.
The table below can be sorted by state, budget, or compensation of the Attorney General.
Most state attorneys general have the duty of appearing on behalf of the state in criminal appeals. Only Mississippi, Montana and Pennsylvania do not give their AGs authority in this area. A minority of states have provisions specifying the extent of their AGs authority in handling appeals. They include:
- 3 states, Alabama, Idaho, Utah, give their AGs exclusive jurisdiction over appeals.
- 3 states, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, can only appear in certain cases
- 3 states, Massachusetts, Minnesota and South Carolina are restricted to assisting local prosecutors in the appeal and/or can appear on own discretion.
- 1 state, Washington, is explicitly limited to appearing in federal death penalty habeas corpus appeals
Consumer Protection/Cyber Crime
A common duty of state attorneys general is intervening in local prosecutions. Most AGs are empowered to intervene in local prosecutions to which the state is not a party, though the authority is often limited to certain circumstances. A recent example of this limitation, pulled straight from the October 2013 headlines, is the Attorney General of Missouri's inability to re-initiate a criminal prosecution against an individual whose charges were already dropped by a county judge, despite pleas from his constituents to intervene in what many of the county residents consider to be a miscarriage of justice. In Missouri, the authority to file criminal charges in local jurisdictions falls exclusively with local prosecutors, and the state AG can only intervene at "under certain statutes and for specific crimes." Meanwhile, attorneys general in Alaska, Attorney General of Delaware and Rhode Island, for example, do not operate under these constraints.
- 22 state AGs can initiate local prosecutions of entirely of their own accord
- 14 states can supersede local prosecutors of their own initiative
- 7 states, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Texas and West Virginia, have no authority to intervene in local prosecutions.
Among the chief criticisms of the office is that state attorneys general have strayed from their traditional defense-based lawyer role to assume more a "offensive" and political posture, often in ways that overstep the legal authority of the office and/or what would be historically recognized as the limits of institutional etiquette. In some cases, attorneys general look inward to test the bounds of their authority through involvement in state legislative matters, or by refusing to uphold state laws which they find to be in violation of an alternate, overarching ideological code, such as Pennsylvania AG Kathleen Kane's stated refusal to enforce Pennsylvania's ban on same-sex marriage. Other times, AGs turn outward to reinterpret their function: In recent years, a number of cases have arisen where state attorneys general mounted coordinated efforts to challenge laws passed by the United States Congress or to exert influence over the outcome of pending federal legislation. The most prominent of these cases is the State Attorneys General Against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which saw 26 Republican AGs team up to instigate a lawsuit against the federal government following Congress' passage of President Obama's health care reform bill.
Other times, external circumstances compel state attorneys general to expand their role and/or collaborate with their counterparts across state lines. For instance, the nationwide mortgage crisis that led 49 AGs (Oklahoma's Scott Pruitt made an independent deal for his state) to negotiate and ultimately settle for $26 billion with a handful of large U.S. banks over dodgy home foreclosures in the wake of the 2008 market downturn. In 2010, Congress passed a federal financial reform law called Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which addressed how attorneys general, as their states' leaders in consumer protection, are critical players in the country's efforts to crack down on predatory and economically destructive lending practices. Dodd-Frank increased AGs' law enforcement powers with regard to fighting fraud.
One possible explanation for state attorneys general becoming more restless and political-minded is the office's rising media profile, which is a function of the rising capacity of the internet and mainstream press to produce and distribute content on controversial cases involving the AGs. Another, possible more likely, explanation is the office's status as a springboard to higher office - to the governorship, especially. Nine sitting governors as of November 2013 previously served as attorney general of their respective states:
- Mike Beebe (D-AR)
- Steve Beshear (D-KY)
- Jerry Brown (D-CA)
- Steve Bullock (D-MT)
- Tom Corbett (R-PA)
- Andrew Cuomo (D-NY)
- Jay Nixon (D-MO)
- Bob McDonnell (R-VA)
- Brian Sandoval (R-NV)
- Website of the National Association of Attorneys General
- The Council of State Governments, "Book of States: Table 4.19 Attorneys General 2013," accessed November 2, 2013
- The Council of State Governments, "Attorneys General: Valuing Privacy in the Digital Age," July 1, 2013
- The Council of State Governments, "Attorneys General: Pillars of Hope: Attorneys General Unite Against Human Trafficking," July 2, 2012
- The Book of States, "State Attorneys General Fight Financial Fraud," July 1, 2011
- The National Association of Attorneys General, "Home," accessed March 26, 2013
- Council of State Governments, "The Book of States 2012," accessed October 17, 2012
- The Council of State Governments, "Book of the States, Table 4.20 - Attorneys General: Qualifications and Terms," accessed October 28, 2013
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- The Book of States, "Table 4.20: Qualifications for Office," last updated March 2012
- The Council of State Governments, "Book of the States, Table 4.19 - Constitutional and Statutory Provisions for Number of Consecutive Terms of Elected State Officials," accessed October 28, 2013
- Office of the Nebraska Attorney General, "About the Attorney General's Office," accessed November 2, 2013
- ConnectTristates.com, "Missouri Attorney General has limited prosecution powers," October 21, 2013
- CNNMoney.com, "Finally, a foreclosure settlement (Maybe)," February 3, 2012 (dead link)
- Book of States: Council of State Governments, "Attorneys General: Valuing Privacy in the Digital Age," July 1, 2013