Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How an Attorney General Works


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 attornus Regis, or "king's attorney," was made in 1253. In 1472, the first formal appointment was made [source: History of the Attorney General's Office].

The office of the attorney general 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 the rights of both the crown and the public.

The history of attorney general in the United States dates back to the American Revolution and the establishment of 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 President George Washington, established the office of the attorney general. According the provisions made when creating the office, the United States attorney general would be appointed by the president of the United States.

Since 1870 and the establishment of the Department of Justice as a part of the executive branch of the government, 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 office of the attorney general on a state level. Most attorney generals are elected, while others are appointed by the governor, legislature or supreme court of the state.

For lots more information about attorney generals, check into the links on the next page.


More to Explore