What’s the deal with state attorneys general?
California’s attorney general has become one of the most powerful political offices in the state. The powers granted to the Golden State’s top cop are numerous and impactful. The attorney general is often front and center for state and federal lawsuits, legal reform, even writing the titles and summaries for ballot initiatives submitted before voters.
Given these headline-grabbing activities, it’s no surprise that the attorneys general office is often a springboard for higher office.
Just look at some of the recent alumni: former Governor Jerry Brown and current Senator and now former Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris. Previous office holders are no slouches either: the late Governor George Deukmejian, the late Governor Pat Brown, and the late California Chief Justice Earl Warren were all state attorneys general, too.
Is it normal for the California attorney general to have a national stage on politics and public policy? Are other state attorneys general as easily recognized?
Current California attorney general Xavier Becerra is well-known for his legal battles against the federal government. His office broke the 50 lawsuit mark against the Trump Administration in the spring of 2019.
Across the country, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein is cut from the Becerra cloth. According to Pew, Stein has led the way in negotiating a national deal with phone companies to cut down on robocalls. He’s also played a key role with other state attorneys general on a nationwide settlement with opioid manufacturers, and investigations into Facebook and Google.
Pew also points out that the two previous North Carolina attorneys general were elected governor, mirroring the high offices held by California attorney generals.
Pew describes that Stein, and probably Becerra, are part of a new breed of state attorneys general: “. . . more aggressive . . . rising to prominence nationwide. What used to be a relatively high-profile position within a state’s boundaries has become a springboard for publicity across the country.”
Stein and Becerra can succeed where other politicians and policy makers fail to make a dent. Unlike lawmakers, who get bogged down trying to pass legislation through a months-long process, an attorney general can quickly mobilize investigations and lawsuits against bad actors. Even a mere press conference on a trending issue can soak up media coverage.
And unlike state lawmakers, a state attorney general can work in a quasi-federal capacity with other states on timely investigations.
Just look at Letitia James, the attorney general of New York. She recently announced that her office is investigating the embattled office space renting company WeWork, as well as an almost nationwide investigation into Facebook for antitrust violations.
Like James, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is leading a bipartisan investigation from all 50 states against Google for antitrust violations. While Becerra, Stein, James, and Paxton identify with different political parties, the attorneys general have the flexibility of working together on crucial nationwide issues all while moving forward on other issues impacting their state.
Nationwide, there are 26 Republican and 25 Democrat attorneys general (including the District of Columbia). While attorneys general are typically an elected office, their partisanship or bipartisanship is dictated by a number of factors.
Governing points out that while state attorneys general are considered the top cop, they more often push criminal investigations to the county level, focusing their efforts on bigger consumer and civil issues that impact the public sphere.
The attorneys general mentioned here match that strategy: investigating Facebook and Google at around the same time Congress and federal regulators are investigating the tech giants, looking into WeWork after their delayed initial public offering ousted the founder and president, and pressuring the unpopular policies of the current federal administration.
The power and discretion given to state attorneys general are unprecedented, but does it mean the attorney general’s office is a ticket to the Congress or the Presidency? Not quite.
There’s never been a United States President elected directly from a state attorney general office. But – Kamala Harris take note – several, including Martin Van Buren and Bill Clinton, held state attorney general positions before becoming president later in their careers.
The state attorney general’s office is a powerful political steppingstone to a governorship or United States Senate bid. Let’s hope attorneys general follow the obligations of their role, and not the whims of a higher political office.
Evan Harris is the media relations and outreach manager at the Pacific Research Institute.