State attorneys general are touted as the “people’s lawyers”—yet the majority are white and male.
With a nation as large as the United States, there’s a plethora of governmental positions to fulfill the various responsibilities necessary to keep the country going. Ever since the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June, the national gaze has shifted towards state-level leadership.
But who are the key players at the state-level? While the vast majority know about roles at the federal level, less understand who is pulling the levers of power in states. Two roles crucial to highlight are attorney general and secretary of state. What exactly do these positions entail and why do they matter? This explainer will help demystify the job of attorneys general and their critical role in protecting our democracy. (Our secretaries of state explainer can be found here.)
Attorney General 101
The office of attorney general is the central legal division of the states and exists in all 50 states, though the exact responsibilities vary. By and large, an attorney general plays an advisory role to the state legislature and relevant state government agencies, along with representing the interests of the general public.
Want to know who your state’s top lawyer and legal advisor is? Find your attorney general’s website here.
Duties and Responsibilities
Attorneys general dictate the state’s law enforcement priorities as well as where resources flow. For the most part, the attorney general can represent the state in criminal appeals in most, if not all cases. For a handful of states, there may be certain restrictions on the types of criminal cases the attorney general is allowed to represent the state for.
Some other responsibilities include:
- Proposing legislation
- Representing the state and state agencies before the state and federal courts
- Representing the public’s interests in charitable trusts and solicitations
- Enforcing certain federal and state laws
Qualifications and Salary
Attorney general is typically a full-time job, and attorney general salaries range from $182,688 in Tennessee, to $80,000 in Colorado. Regulations for how to qualify for attorney general vary by state; 23 states have specified qualifications required in order to become an attorney general, such as a minimum age (this ranges from 18 to 30 years old), being a U.S. citizen—sometimes for a certain amount of years, or to pass the bar exam. Some states do not have formal provisions requiring an attorney general to have been admitted to the bar or to be a lawyer.
Length of Term
Half of the country’s attorneys general (25) do not have term limits. The majority (44) serve four-year terms with the exception of Vermont, which has a two-year term. In most states (43), the attorney general is elected. In the remaining seven states, the attorney general is appointed by either the governor, the state legislature, or the state Supreme Court.
Women Attorneys General—Past and Present
The first woman attorney general was Arlene Violet (R, 1985-86) in Rhode Island. As of 2022, a total of 41 women have held the elected office of attorney general. Twenty-one states have never had a woman attorney general. Currently, there are only nine women attorneys general in office. This number is shocking considering how attorneys general are touted as the “people’s lawyers”—yet the majority are white and male. The interests of the public cannot be adequately represented when those who represent us do not reflect society’s diversity of race, gender, and the unique perspectives that come from such identities.
Women Attorneys General Saving our Democracy
Women attorneys general play an important role in shaping our democracy: they are at the forefront of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, abortion rights and voting rights—among other things.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D), elected in 2014, was the first openly gay attorney general in the country, and the first elected woman attorney general of the state. Healey is a well-known champion of LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights and paid parental leave.
Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel has recently requested a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of unauthorized access to and interference with voting machines. Nessel also joined a group of 17 other attorneys general and filed an amicus brief in opposition to Florida’s Defense of Discriminatory Voting Law, which made it much more difficult for the elderly, disabled persons, and people of color to vote.
New York’s Attorney General Letitia James, who was New York’s first woman and first Black attorney general, has long been an advocate for keeping voting accessible to all groups, and led the movement to block Florida’s restrictive voting law. She has taken up national issues such as the Trump administration’s aim to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census, and has protected local communities by supporting affordable housing initiatives.
In the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson the role of state attorneys general is only becoming more prominent. As the chief prosecutor of their states, attorneys general have the power to prosecute, or not prosecute, their citizens. Attorney General Nessel (MI) has already said she will not enforce abortion bans in the state.
States are expected to increase the power of their attorney generals, minimizing the influence of local prosecutors. This would allow attorneys general to override decisions made within localities both in relation to abortion and otherwise.
State attorneys general can be tremendously consequential both within and out of their states. In states where attorneys general are elected, voters can have their voices heard at the ballot box. This year, 30 states have attorney general contests, and many of these are in swing states, with Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin being expected to have particularly close races.
As you gear up to vote this fall, we hope this explainer has helped demystify the role of attorneys general and what important players they are in protecting our democracy.
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