What Does The Attorney General Do? (Duties And Powers)

Learn more about the Attorney General's duties and powers.
President Joe Biden looks on as Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers remarks during a Medal of Valor ceremony, Monday, May 16, 2022, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Joe Biden looks on as Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers remarks during a Medal of Valor ceremony, Monday, May 16, 2022, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Updated October 15, 2022

What is the role of the Attorney General?

The Attorney General is the Head of the Justice Department and the attorney for the United States in all legal matters. They dispense legal advice to the president and the heads of other governmental agencies when requested. The Attorney General may support important cases that go to the Supreme Court of the United States if the case is deemed important in nature.

The Attorney General is also responsible for making sure the law is enforced impartially and fairly, leading to examinations of alleged violations of the law. Responsible for U.S. Attorneys throughout the country, the Attorney General may provide guidance interpreting the law to assist in prosecuting or defending the United States in legal proceedings. The Attorney General also oversees the federal prison system and all of the systems that pertain to it.

How does one become Attorney General?

The position of Attorney General is an appointed one, nominated by the president and confirmed by the United States Senate. There is also a succession plan in place in the event there is no Attorney General due to absence or death, which allows the Deputy Attorney General to assume all powers and duties of the office. While the Deputy Attorney General would not be a confirmed Attorney General, they would have all of the powers of the office at hand as interim Attorney General.

What are the most important powers of the Attorney General?

The Attorney General will provide advice and guidance to the president and other high ranking officials regarding the law and how it should be implemented. This provides the Attorney General with a great deal of power, as they would have the ability to shape how laxly or punitively the law is to be applied. As the Justice Department has such wide-reaching tentacles of power in matters of law, from the banal to the extremely serious, this power can reach nearly all aspects of life in the U.S.

The Attorney General will also represent the United States in court, and how vociferously or meekly he wishes to defend the law may help push a desired outcome. Some Attorneys General spend their entire tenure defending a law, only to see the next Attorney General stop all defense, allowing the law to become ineffective and toothless. The Department of Justice should be arguing to uphold the law and the office should not be politicized due to presidential influence or pressure.

The Justice Department is supposed to be an independent agency and not subject to the pressure of the executive branch. Senior-level appointees can generally be hired and fired by the president, though some limitations exist, such as the FBI director’s 10-year appointment term. Many of the rank-and-file career civil servants below the level of presidential appointment have legal protections against firing.

Since the Watergate scandal, almost every president has sought to preserve the Department of Justice’s independence from the executive branch. In such a scenario, a president may have his staff ask the Justice Department to fire someone inside the Justice Department, but they do not have to obey his wishes and may jeopardize their current positions by bucking the president’s wishes.

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Who is the current Attorney General?

Merrick Garland is the current Attorney General of the United States. Garland was Appointed by President Biden and sworn in on March 11, 2021.

What agencies are under the Department of Justice?

The Department of Justice is responsible for most of the legal business of the government, and therefore, many of the law enforcement agencies throughout the country. There are six litigating divisions in the department:

  • Antitrust
  • Civil
  • Civil Rights
  • Criminal
  • Environmental and Natural Resources
  • Tax

Each division is headed up by an Assistant Attorney General, and many cases that impact the country at a federal level will filter through these divisions. The Department of Justice heads up multiple law enforcement agencies:

  • U.S. Attorneys
  • U.S. Marshals Service
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons
  • Office of Justice Programs

The Department of Justice also has an eye on the administrative side of the law, assisting with legal advice to the president, bankruptcy cases, the parole system, foreign claims and settlements, and Justice statistics on criminal activity. Several important offices under the Justice Department are:

  • Office of Legislative Affairs
  • Office of Legal Counsel
  • U.S. Parole Commission
  • Executive Office for U.S. Trustees
  • Foreign Claims Settlement Division
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics

The Department of Justice touches nearly every part of legal life in America, from violent crime to tax code violations, with nearly sixty separate and distinct agencies listed on the DOJ website. Other notable agencies the DOJ is responsible for include:

  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
  • Executive Office for Immigration Review
  • INTERPOL Washington
  • National Institute of Corrections
  • Office of Privacy and Civil Liberties
  • Office of Pardon Attorney
  • Office on Violence Against Women
  • Special Counsel’s Office
  • Tribal Justice and Safety

History Of The Attorney General

The Office of the Attorney General was created in 1789 and was intended to be a one-person position. The person in the position was supposed to be “learned in the law” and was tasked with conducting all suits in the Supreme Court and advising the president and cabinet in law-related matters. The work quickly grew, requiring the addition of multiple assistants and private attorneys to work on cases.

After the Civil War, in 1870, the office had grown to include a large number of private attorneys litigating an increasing number of cases. To mitigate the situation, Congress created the Department of Justice, an executive department with the Attorney General as its head. It was at this time that the Department of Justice was commissioned to handle all criminal prosecutions and civil suits in which the United States had an interest.

In the time since the 1870 act creating the Department of Justice, many new offices have been added, such as the offices of the Deputy Attorney General and Associate Attorney General. Many other components, agencies, divisions, and boards have been created, making the United States Department of Justice the world’s largest law office.

List Of Attorneys General

  • Merrick Garland, 2021 – Present
  • William Barr, 2019 – 2020
  • Jeff Sessions, 2017 – 2018
  • Loretta Lynch, 2015 – 2017
  • Eric Holder, Jr., 2009 – 2015
  • Michael Mukasey, 2007 – 2009
  • Alberto Gonzales, 2005 – 2007
  • John Ashcroft, 2001 – 2005
  • Janet Reno, 1993 – 2001
  • William Barr, 1991 – 1993
  • Richard Thornburgh, 1988 – 1991
  • Edwin Meese III, 1985 – 1988
  • William Smith, 1981 – 1985
  • Benjamin Civiletti, 1979 – 1981
  • Griffin Bell, 1977 – 1979
  • Edward Levi, 1975 – 1977
  • William Saxbe, 1974 – 1975
  • Elliot Richardson, 1973
  • Richard Kleindienst, 1972 – 1973
  • John Mitchell, 1969 – 1972
  • William Clark, 1967 – 1969
  • Nicholas Katzenbach, 1965 – 1966
  • Robert Kennedy, 1961 – 1964
  • William Rogers, 1957 – 1961
  • Herbert Brownell, Jr., 1953 – 1957
  • James McGranery, 1952 – 1953
  • James McGrath, 1949 – 1952
  • Thomas Clark, 1945 – 1949
  • Francis Biddle, 1941 – 1945
  • Robert Jackson, 1940 – 1941
  • Frank Murphy, 1939 – 1940
  • Homer Cummings, 1933 – 1939
  • William Mitchell, 1929 – 1933
  • John Sargent, 1925 – 1929
  • Harlan Stone, 1924 – 1925
  • Harry Daugherty, 1921 – 1924
  • Alexander Palmer, 1919 – 1921
  • Thomas Gregory, 1914 – 1919
  • James McReynolds, 1913 – 1914
  • George Wickersham, 1909 – 1913
  • Charles Bonaparte, 1906 – 1909
  • William Moody, 1904 – 1906
  • Philander Knox, 1901 – 1904
  • John Griggs, 1898 – 1901
  • Joseph McKenna, 1897 – 1898
  • Judson Harmon, 1895 – 1897
  • Richard Olney, 1893 – 1895
  • William Miller, 1889 – 1893
  • Augustus Garland, 1885 – 1889
  • Benjamin Brewster, 1881 – 1885
  • Isaac MacVeagh, 1881
  • Charles Devens, 1877 – 1881
  • Alphonso Taft, 1876 – 1877
  • Edwards Pierrepont, 1871 – 1875
  • George Williams, 1871 – 1875
  • Amos Akerman, 1870 – 1871
  • Ebenezer Hoar, 1869 – 1870
  • Williams Evarts, 1868 – 1869
  • Henry Stanbery, 1866 – 1868
  • James Speed, 1864 – 1866
  • Edward Bates, 1861 – 1864
  • Edwin Stanton, 1860 – 1861
  • Jeremiah Black, 1857 – 1860
  • Caleb Cushing, 1853 – 1857
  • John Crittenden, 1850 – 1853
  • Reverdy Johnson, 1849 – 1850
  • Isaac Toucey, 1848 – 1849
  • Nathan Clifford, 1846 – 1848
  • John Mason, 1845 – 1846
  • John Nelson, 1843 – 1845
  • Hugh Legare, 1841 – 1843
  • John Crittenden, 1841
  • Henry Gilpin, 1840 – 1841
  • Felix Grundy, 1838 – 1839
  • Benjamin Franklin Butler, 1833 – 1838
  • Roger Taney, 1831 – 1833
  • John Macpherson Berrien, 1829 – 1831
  • William Wirt, 1817 – 1829
  • Richard Rush, 1814 – 1817
  • William Pinkney, 1811 – 1814
  • Caesar Augustus Rodney, 1807 – 1811
  • John Breckinridge, 1805 – 1806
  • Levi Lincoln, 1801 – 1805
  • Charles Lee, 1795 – 1801
  • William Bradford, 1794 – 1795
  • Edmund Randolph, 1789 – 1794

The Rantt Rundown

The Department of Justice, created in 1789, has grown from a part-time, one-person office to become the world’s largest law office, encompassing sixty different agencies and offices. The Attorney General is in charge of the Department and is responsible for all aspects of the Justice Department. The head of this vast bureaucracy has enough impact to shape the way laws are treated by law enforcement professionals across the country. The Department of Justice is supposed to be independent of the presidency so that it can effectively and impartially apply the law to all citizens.

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Rantt 101 // Attorney General / DOJ / Merrick Garland