What Is It?
Your attorney general is your state’s top lawyer. They represent you – and your state legislature and agencies – in legal matters.
A state’s Attorney General is supposed to advocate for the public interest when it comes to things like the environment, worker safety, civil rights and much more. They also represent the public’s interest where utilities are concerned (for example, if your power company wants to raise its rates), enforce child support payments, and oversee victim compensation programs.
Think of your attorney general as a kind of Captain America who went to law school: defending state laws and policies against the federal government, and protecting citizens from rogue utilities, banks, and other institutions.
Your attorney general also issues legal opinions that interpret state laws.
Do You Have One?
Yep! Every state has an attorney general that acts as the state’s chief legal advisor and chief law enforcement officer. Most are elected by popular vote. The governors of Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Wyoming appoint their state’s attorney general, while Maine’s is appointed by the state legislature, and Tennessee’s is appointed by the state supreme court.
Why It Matters to You
Your attorney general interprets and enforces the laws that govern your state. They also have the power to work with other states’ attorneys general to force corporations to act more responsibly. For example, during the 2008 mortgage crisis, it was a group of attorneys general who forced giant mortgage lenders to the bargaining table and secured $20 billion for stressed-out homeowners.
The job of attorney general combines enforcement authority with public policy advocacy, creating a unique opportunity for change and protection that no other government officer holds.
If you care about:
Remember when stores were selling hand sanitizer, masks, toilet paper, and grocery staples at insanely high prices during the pandemic? State attorneys general certainly noticed and many of them launched investigations.
Your attorney general could ask the federal government to investigate possibly deceptive claims by for-profit colleges about how much their students can expect to earn after graduation.
Your attorney general enforces state laws that protect your air, water, and land from pollution by fining or suing corporations or public agencies that violate those laws.
If the federal government issues new rules to regulate guns, your attorney general could sue to stop those rules from going into effect.
Your attorney general can protect your health – and your pocketbook – by investigating shady behavior by insurance companies, drug companies, and addiction treatment centers.
Homelessness & Affordable Housing
Your attorney general might advocate for mandatory mental health treatment – rather than jail – for homeless people.
Your attorney general runs the agency that oversees how your tax dollars are collected – sometimes called the Tax Division or the Revenue Division – and enforces your state’s tax laws.
Your attorney general defends your state’s Department of Transportation in lawsuits that touch on all kinds of issues, including eminent domain, environmental concerns, or damaged property.
How to Make an Impact
If you live in one of the 43 states that elects its attorney general, be sure to register and vote! To research each candidate’s positions on issues you care about, your local newspaper is a great place to start. Many newspapers interview candidates to learn more about their views, assess how qualified they are, and endorse a particular candidate for the job. Keep your eyes peeled for a candidate forum where members of the public can ask questions and hear from everyone who’s running.
Make Your Issue an Election Issue
Campaigns are the time to shine a light on the issues you care about. Raise your issue by asking questions at candidate forums, writing a Letter to the Editor at your local newspaper or calling in to a public affairs radio show. Contact organizations that advocate for your issue, too – they may not have thought about getting involved in the election for the next attorney general.
Advocate All the Time
Has your insurance company double-billed you? Has your utility rate mysteriously increased? Do you suspect a local company of illegally dumping waste? The attorney general in your state probably has a website where you can file complaints online. Check out your attorney general’s website or bring a concern to their attention.
You could also ask your attorney general to create a task force to explore a particular issue in more depth – for example, you could ask your attorney general to come up with recommendations for how your state can better implement and enforce child support laws.
If it’s an election year, you could volunteer for the campaign of the attorney general candidate who best reflects your values. In the meantime, you can volunteer with a non-profit organization that advocates for the issues you care about – and encourage it to recruit and support attorney general candidates with positions you can get behind (within the limits of the law of course).
Your attorney general is part of the state governance leadership. You can leverage these relationships by asking your governor, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, and state legislators to direct the attorney general to act on your issue.
On the Ground
Many organizations see state attorneys general as important figures during a time of changing abortion laws, and many are endorsing candidates who reflect their positions for state attorney general. Groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America endorsed a candidate who wants to protect abortion rights in Texas, while Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s Candidate Fund endorsed one who opposes abortion in Kansas.
Following a deadly school shooting in Michigan, parents and students are pressuring their school district to allow the state’s attorney general to conduct an independent review of school safety measures.
Numerous people who participated in demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd say the New York Police Department used excessive force and falsely arrested protesters. New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a complaint on behalf of those protestors and sought an impartial monitor to oversee the policing of future citizen demonstrations.
The makers of popular tax filing software TurboTax lured poorer taxpayers into paying for services that should have been free, according to a report by the nonprofit news organization. That report prompted all 50 state attorneys general to sue the company – and secure rebates for four million low-income taxpayers.