How the U.S. Department of Justice Works

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
The U.S. Department of Justice consists of eight divisions and 93 U.S. Attorneys, and includes the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Bureau of Prisons, among other agencies that fall under its umbrella. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) calls itself "the world's largest law office." But that doesn't fully convey the scope of a government entity with a $29.2 billion budget and more than 115,000 employees, and an organizational chart that includes more than three dozen different offices, divisions and law enforcement agencies. It handles responsibilities ranging from enforcing civil rights and environmental laws to regulating explosives and evaluating Americans' loss and injury claims for damages from terrorist attacks. It also operates prisons and is involved in counterespionage.

That's especially remarkable, considering when the department started in 1870, it consisted of just a single lawyer — a Kentucky-born Civil War veteran and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate named Benjamin Helm Bristow, who was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as the nation's first Solicitor General. (He later served as Grant's Secretary of the Treasury.)


"What happened was that the Department of Justice expanded over the decades as the scope of federal law and federal regulation expanded," explains Jack M. Beermann. He's a Boston University law professor and an expert on civil rights litigation and administrative law. "It pretty much paralleled that expansion."

Today, "most federal agencies can't go to court without the permission and participation of DOJ," Beermann says. Those agencies depend upon the nation's law firm to enforce their regulations and to defend them against legal challenges.


The Parts of DOJ

The Justice Department's organization is quite complex and consists of several different types of organizations. (Here's a list of them.) One crucial part of DOJ is the network of 93 U.S. Attorneys, one for each judicial district (except for Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, which are separate districts but share a single U.S. Attorney). Their role is to prosecute criminal cases, litigate civil suits involving the federal government, and assist in collecting debts owed to the U.S. The U.S. Attorneys are presidential appointees (which some have criticized as politicizing the justice system), but they have staffs of career lawyers working under them.

Additionally, DOJ has eight different divisions, which handle different areas of the law:


  • Antitrust Division: This division, which dates back to President Theodore Roosevelt's efforts to curb the power of Gilded Age tycoons back in the early 1900s, enforces laws meant to ensure fair business competition and prevent monopolies.
  • Civil Division: These attorneys represent the U.S. in civil lawsuits in a wide range of areas, from consumer protection to compensating victims of radiation exposure.
  • Civil Rights Division: This division enforces laws that protect Americans' rights to voting, housing, access to credit, and unimpeded access to reproductive health clinics. It's also charged with protecting the rights of people with disabilities.
  • Criminal Division: This division supervises investigations and prosecutions of crimes that don't fall under the responsibility of Antitrust, Civil Rights and other divisions. This includes drug trafficking, organized crime, child exploitation, the bribing of politicians, computer hacking and other criminal activity.
  • Environment and Natural Resources Division: This division's responsibilities include filing lawsuits to enforce rules on pesticide use, hazardous waste cleanup, air pollution, mining and other environmental issues.
  • Justice Management Division: This division handles budgetary and financial management, training, information processing and other nuts-and-bolts aspects of running DOJ.
  • Tax Division: This division works with the Internal Revenue Service to catch tax cheats, and handles lawsuits involving tax refunds, bankruptcies and other related issues.
  • National Security Division: This division handles intelligence activities, representing the U.S. government in the secret court proceedings on surveillance of suspected spies and terrorists. It also assists in developing strategies for fighting cyber-espionage, unauthorized disclosure of classified information, and oversight of registered foreign agents in the U.S.

In addition, DOJ has multiple additional offices, which handle a variety of issues ranging from pardons and tribal justice to violence against women, immigration-related litigation and the apprehension, punishment and tracking of sex offenders.

DOJ also includes multiple law enforcement agencies, ranging from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). It also includes the Bureau of Prisons, which runs the nation's federal correctional facilities.


How DOJ Got So Big

Before there was a Department of Justice, "each district had a U.S. attorney, a local who would bring whatever litigation was necessary, whether it was criminal or civil," says Beermann. This worked fine, because "the scope of federal law was small at that time." When the U.S. attorneys needed help, they hired private attorneys to represent the government. But eventually, their fees got too expensive.

"After the Civil War, especially because of civil rights cases, there was a big increase in hiring outside lawyers to help with these cases," Beermann says. "That was a big concern, because the government was trying to cope with a huge debt from the Civil War. So [Congress] decided to start a Department of Justice."


At first, DOJ consisted of just a single lawyer, the Solicitor General, who today represents the U.S. government at the Supreme Court, in addition to deciding when the federal government should appeal cases that it loses in the lower courts. But others gradually were added. Today the DOJ is headed by the Attorney General. Two key positions under the AG are Deputy Attorney General, whose duties range from managing the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force to making recommendations about pardons, and Associate Attorney General, who supervises divisions handling civil rights, tax, environmental, natural resources, antitrust and civil litigation. DOJ also added an array of different offices, boards, divisions and agencies within the Department, as the DOJ website notes.

The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C., headquarters of the United States Department of Justice.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

As the scope of federal law and the DOJ grew, some of its turf overlapped with state attorneys general and local district attorneys.

"A lot of federal law is superimposed on state law that regulates similar issues — drug crimes, regulation of drug abuse and distribution and possession, and a lot of the financial fraud areas," Beermann says. In some cases, that's because both criminal activity and regulated commerce are stretched across state lines. If multiple states are affected by the same issue, "the most efficient method or regulation is to do it federally," according to Beermann.

In addition to the expanding legal practice, in the 1900s the DOJ began including new federal law enforcement agencies, so that it began investigating crimes and building cases against offenders, as well as trying them in court. One of these agencies was the FBI, which grew out of the force of Special Agents created by Theodore Roosevelt's Attorney General, Charles Bonaparte, in 1908. (Before that time, the Department of Justice used the Secret Service's investigators, part of the Treasury Department.)


How the Pieces Fit Together

With DOJ's sprawling scale and diverse responsibilities, many of its parts function semi-independently of one another. According to Beermann, there are silo divisions in DOJ that focus on their own areas of jurisdiction and expertise, and divisions that don't talk to other divisions much. "But they do have centralized control," he says. "There will be an assistant AG who heads that division and takes direction from the Attorney General about priorities."

DOJ officials often have considerable discretion about deciding which cases to pursue, and which to appeal or settle. "The attorney general sets the parameters, then leaves it to subordinates to carry out," Beermann says. There are certain exceptions – federal prosecutors who want to pursue the death penalty against a defendant, for example, have to get approval from the Attorney General. But generally, that system works pretty cohesively. "All in the people in DOJ understand their mission," Beermann says. "You rarely hear controversies in DOJ about what cases should be brought."


Sometimes, though, there's more disagreement with DOJ decisions from federal agencies that DOJ lawyers represent in court. While briefs filed by DOJ on behalf of agencies usually bear the signatures of both agency and DOJ lawyers, "once in a while you'll see one only signed by the Solicitor General, because agency lawyers don't agree," Beermann says.