Attorney General, a law officer of state. In England he is the counsel to the crown. He may be required by either of the houses of parliament to institute prosecutions for offences against the honor and dignity of the houses, or against the public laws of the nation, and by custom may prosecute for misdemeanors by information without first procuring an indictment. He may also file information in civil causes, under penal statutes, and he is charged by special statutes with other duties in the public interest. - The attorney general of the United States is the first law officer of the government. The judiciary act of 1789, which first defined his office, provided that there should be appointed a meet person, learned in the law, whose duty it should be to prosecute and conduct all suits in the supreme court in which the United States should be concerned, and to give his advice and opinion upon questions of law when required by the president or by the heads of any of the departments touching any matters which concerned the affairs of their offices.
By an act of 1830 the attorney general was required to consult and advise with the solicitor general of the treasury as to the conduct of suits and other proceedings pertaining to the revenue; and by an act of 1861 he was charged with a general supervision and direction of the district attorneys and marshals of the United States, and of their discharge of their duties; and they were required to report to him an account of their proceedings and the condition of their offices. In practice also it has been conceded that either house of congress may call upon the attorney general for information on any matter within the scope of his office, and that it is his duty to communicate such information. He has also conducted all suits of the United States in the supreme court. It has been always understood that the opinion of the attorney general is not conclusive upon the president or the secretaries; but it has been the practice, for the sake of preserving harmony and uniformity of decision and action in the different departments, to govern the administration of their affairs according to the attorney general's advice.
The opinions of the attorneys general from the earliest period have thus come to be a body of precedents on questions of public law which have a certain authority, of the same character, though not of the same imperative force, as the adjudication of courts of justice. It is a settled rule, in construction of the functions of this officer, that he has no light to give an opinion in any other cases than those in which the statutes make it his duty to give it. Therefore he will not give an opinion to any subordinate officer of any of the departments; nor will he give an opinion to individuals in respect to their claims against the government; nor will he advise upon speculative or hypothetical cases, nor upon any point of law unless it has actually arisen in a case presented for the action of a department. An act of June 22, 1870, established an executive department of the government, called the department of justice, and made the attorney general the head of it. The statute provides for the appointment of a solicitor general and of assistants to the attorney general, and transfers to the department the solicitors of the treasury, of the navy, and of the internal revenue, the naval judge advocate, and the clerks and assistants of these officers.
It authorizes the attorney general to refer questions submitted to him to his assistants, and their opinions approved by him have the force of his own. He may direct the solicitor general to argue causes in the court of claims in which the United States is interested, and appeals from that court to the supreme court in such cases as are committed to him and to the solicitor general. The secretaries of the war and navy departments may also by this act require opinions from the attorney general on questions of law the cognizance of which is not given by statute to other officers. - The duties of the attorney general of a state are defined by constitutional or statutory provisions. They are generally to prosecute and defend all kinds of actions in the event of which the people of the state are interested; to recover for the state escheated lands or forfeited estates; to test the right of any person who is charged with unlawfully holding or exercising any public office or any franchise within the state, or the right of persons who are alleged to be acting as a corporation without authority; to bring actions for the purpose of vacating the charters or revoking the franchises of corporations for violations of the provisions of the acts which created them, or when they have incurred forfeiture of their charters by nonuser of their franchises, or the assumption of privileges not conferred upon them.
It is also his function to give legal advice to the governor and to other officers of the state; to prepare legal instruments for the use of the state; and at the request of the governor or other state officials to indict and prosecute persons accused by such officers of violations of the laws which they are charged with enforcing.