How an Attorney General Works

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder prepares to testify about the Department of Justice 2011 budget.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president of the United States of America. In keeping with his historic campaign and election, Obama nominated Eric Holder to serve in his Cabinet as the United States attorney general. Holder's career, like Obama's, is full of a history of African-American firsts. Holder was the first African-American to serve as the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., and the first African-American to be deputy attorney general. As attorney general, he was also the highest-ranking African-American person in law enforcement in the United States.

Holder's position in the government is obviously an important one. As attorney general, Holder guides the world's largest law office and leads the agency responsible for enforcing federal laws.


The attorney general is the legal adviser to the government. On the federal level in the United States, the Office of the Attorney General heads the Department of Justice and is the chief law enforcement office in the federal government. The attorney general is responsible for legally representing the United States and advising the president and heads of executive departments when his or her opinion is needed. The attorney general also may appear before the Supreme Court.

In addition to the U.S. attorney general, there are attorneys general in each of the 50 states. They serve as legal adviser for their states' governments and as their states' chief law enforcement officer. In some states, the state attorney general, like the federal attorney general, is the head of the state department of justice.

What Does an Attorney General Do?

The attorney general holds the power of attorney in representing a government in all legal matters. The attorney general is nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. There is no designated term for the attorney general, rather the president can remove him or her from the office at any time. Additionally, the attorney general can be impeached and tried by Congress if deemed necessary.

As head of the Department of Justice and chief legal counsel to the president, the duties of the attorney general are obviously important and wide reaching. The attorney general prosecutes cases that involve the government and gives advice to the president and heads of the executive departments when needed.


As the chief officer of the Department of Justice, the attorney general enforces federal laws, provides legal counsel in federal cases, interprets the laws that govern executive departments, heads federal jails and penal institutions, and examines alleged violations of federal laws. In addition, the attorney general may be called upon to represent the United States in the Supreme Court in cases of exceptional importance. The attorney general serves in the Cabinet of the president of the United States.

The attorney general is in charge of supervising United States attorneys and marshals in their respective judicial districts. While attorneys are responsible for prosecuting offenses against the United States and prosecuting or defending in proceedings in which the United States requires representation, marshals issue orders and processes under the authority of the United States.

States attorneys general have many of the same duties as the federal attorney general but on a smaller statewide scale. The specific duties of attorney general vary from state to state. Some attorneys general are elected in statewide contests, while others are appointed by the governor, legislature or supreme court.

The projects that an attorney general can take on are wide ranging. For example, Eric Holder voiced opinions on waterboarding, the close of Guantanamo Bay detention camp and the transfer of accused terrorists to jails on U.S. soil. On the state level, attorneys general might challenge the constitutionality of a law. In 2010, 11 state attorneys general moved to challenge the constitutionality of the health care reform bill [source: Richey].

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 attorneys general are elected, while others are appointed by the governor, legislature or supreme court of the state.

For lots more information about attorneys general, check into the links that follow.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • "About the Office." The Office of the Attorney General: The United States Department of Justice.
  • "Accused 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed faces New York trial." CNN. Nov. 13, 2009.
  • "Attorney Generals of the United States: 1789 -- Present." The Office of the Attorney General: The United States Department of Justice.
  • "Eric Holder Biography." Biography.
  • "History of the Attorney General's Office." Nebraska Attorney General.
  • "Holder: Guantanamo Detainee Decision Soon." NPR. Oct. 15, 2009.
  • "Holder: Waterboarding is torture." Politico. Jan. 15, 2009.
  • "Janet Reno." The Office of the Attorney General: The United States Department of Justice.
  • "Meet the Attorney General." The Office of the Attorney General: The United States Department of Justice.
  • Richey, Warren. "Attorneys general in 11 states poised to challenge healthcare bill." Christian Science Monitor. March 22, 2010.
  • White, Elmer E. "Michigan Lawyers in History." Michigan Bar.