March 14, 2022
Get to Know Your State Attorney General; Their Work Matters More than You Know
This is the first piece in an eight-month long blog series aimed at highlighting state attorneys general and their work. Upcoming blogs will feature writings from former and current state attorneys general and their staffs.
State attorneys general (state AGs) hold an indispensable position in the U.S. legal system. Considered the chief legal officers of the states, state AGs are pivotal in protecting the public interest and upholding the rule of law. These public servants work on many issues that impact your life every day, and in most states, they are directly elected. This November, state AGs will be on the ballot in 31 states and territories, making 2022 a critical year in determining how your rights and the rule of law are protected for at least the next four years. And yet, there is too often a lack of awareness by voters about what state attorneys general do, and minimal media attention on candidates running for this important office.
State attorneys general represent the state and state agencies on both the state and federal levels. Also referred to as “the people’s lawyer”, state attorneys general work to defend and uphold the U.S. and state constitutions. The role of the state AG varies across jurisdictions but commonly consists of enforcing federal and state laws, proposing legislation, operating victim compensation programs, issuing formal opinions to state agencies, and acting as public advocates in areas such as consumer protections, worker protections, and antitrust regulation.
In just the last few months, state attorneys general around the country have:
- Taken actions against COVID-19 testing centers violating the Consumer Protection Act.
- Called for new national worker protection standards addressing changing working conditions as climate change causes rises in temperature.
- Launched investigations into County Sheriff’s Offices accused of misconduct.
- Taken measures to prevent price gouging in a time of crisis.
In recent years, certain state attorneys general have started to do more work around criminal justice reform, racial justice initiatives, and more work addressing systemic disenfranchisement. Earlier this year, the former Virginia attorney general rescinded 58 legal opinions that perpetuated racism, making it clear that those “legal opinions do not reflect the Virginia of today.”
Sometimes state attorneys general join forces to act on nationwide issues. We’ve seen state AGs form bipartisan coalitions to call on the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes and oral nicotine products, fight impersonation scams, and apply fair sentencing reforms to low-level drug offenses. However, state AGs do not always work together or agree on how to address an issue.
A state attorney general’s priorities and use of resources can differ enormously depending on who occupies the office. There are often stark differences between the work progressive state AGs and conservative state AGs do. For example, in Arizona, the state AG suggested that the state was under “invasion” by undocumented immigrants, in attempts to begin deporting them without federal immigration enforcement. In contrast, the Massachusetts AG endorsed the Work and Family Mobility Act, expanding rights to undocumented immigrants by allowing them to obtain state driver’s licenses.
State attorneys general play a key role in the U.S. legal system; the work they do impacts our everyday lives. And although they are directly elected in 43 states and territories, the races for state AG receive substantially less media and voter attention than the more traditional high-profile races for Congress and governorships. This needs to change. You can find information about your state AG and their work here.
ACS started the State Attorneys General Project in 2017 to recognize and highlight the distinct role of the state AG in the U.S. legal system. We believe that the role of the state AG should be used as a force to improve people’s lives. Throughout this year, ACS will feature writings from former and current state AGs and their staffs. Upcoming pieces will include the state AG’s role in promoting environmental justice and LGBTQ+ rights and will discuss state AG elections.
You can stay engaged and learn more about this work by visiting the State Attorneys General Project webpage, where news and information is updated weekly. The Project collects and publishes state attorney general news, blogs, Issue Briefs, and policy resources. We publish resources for law students and recent graduates interested in working in a state attorney general office. We also host programs engaging state AGs and examining some of the legal and policy issues they face. As the November elections approach, take time to learn about the AG in your state, share these resources within your networks, and stay on the lookout for upcoming blogs exploring the many ways state AGs make a difference in our lives.