How a State's Attorney Works

A State's Attorney, along with a phalanx of Assistant State's Attorneys, prosecutes criminal and civil cases for the people.
A State's Attorney, along with a phalanx of Assistant State's Attorneys, prosecutes criminal and civil cases for the people.
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Prosecuting attorneys are the voice of the people in America's courtrooms, enforcing the law and representing the duly elected government at all levels. A State's Attorney is the most common term for a prosecutor, someone who represents the people in criminal and civil legal matters. But while the most iconic image of a State's Attorney is the trial prosecutor depicted in countless television shows, books and films, State's Attorneys don't just prosecute accused criminals.

As the head law enforcement official for their jurisdiction, they're also charged with looking out for the public's interest in all legal matters. Sometimes, that means filing a lawsuit against a company taking part in illegal business practices, in order to punish it and force it to stop. Other times, it means being the legal adviser to other elected local government officials. It can also mean taking people who fail to follow civil laws, such as zoning violations or child support issues, to court.

In general, State's Attorneys are elected by the people they represent. Their duties are spelled out in the laws of the local governments they represent, and they're held accountable by the voters for how well they do their jobs and how well their performance matches up with the local politics of the area.

But a State's Attorney hardly ever does the job alone. Many have offices that contain dozens or even hundreds of appointed assistant or deputy State's Attorneys, as well as support staff. These assistants or deputies are the ones who routinely appear in court, representing the State's Attorney's office.

In some places, State's Attorneys are called by different names. States that refer to themselves as commonwealths, such as Virginia and Kentucky, refer to them as Commonwealth's Attorneys [source: Commonwealth's Attorneys Services Council].

State's Attorneys generally represent a defined geographic area, such as a county, judicial district or judicial circuit. These generally hold the title of County Attorney, District Attorney or Circuit Attorney, respectively. State's Attorneys can also represent a city and be known as a City Attorney.

In the next section, we'll find out more about what a State's Attorney does and how he or she participates in the legal process.