When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was the state’s attorney general, he had a memorable description for his old job.
“My job description has been simplified over the past four years,” he said during a speech in 2013. “Because what I do is I go into the office, I sue the federal government and then I go home.”
Abbott was purposely oversimplifying his daily work schedule, but defending the state’s laws is a key element of the job.
“The attorney general is really the state's attorney,” former state Solicitor General Julie Parsley said. “He or she defends the state's laws and Constitution. They represent the state and its agencies, which is a very important thing to do. But there's also ... a myriad of things that they do by state law, too.”
Parsley pointed to consumer protection as another top role of the attorney general’s office. It’s the AG’s job to watch out for things like price gouging during natural disasters and to enforce child support orders. The attorney general also has oversight of charitable institutions.
But there’s one thing some people assume the office does that it doesn’t.
“The Texas attorney general is not a crime fighter,” said Hugh Brady, director of the Legislative Lawyering Clinic at the UT School of Law.
Of course that hasn’t stopped some attorney general candidates from playing up the role of crime fighter when running for office.
“Back in the ’70s, you would see some candidates running for AG who would be standing in a jail cell, and they'd slam the jail door and they'd say, ‘I'm going to put criminals behind bars!'” Parsley said. “Putting criminals behind bars is not their primary job.”
There are some exceptions. If a local district attorney is recused from a case, the attorney general’s office will step in to take it over. Or if a local district attorney needs help prosecuting a case, again the AG’s office is there to help out.
So, what qualifies someone to perform all these duties?
“Well, of course, you have to be an attorney,” Parsley said.
But how you use your law degree is up to you. Abbott and his predecessor, current U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, both sat on the Texas State Supreme Court before becoming attorney general. Is that experience a necessity?
“Whether you have to do something like that, I don’t think it’s necessarily required,” Parsley said. “But I think it certainly has its benefits.”
She said she thinks the benefit is having a deeper understanding of state law in general.
Here’s a quick cartoon explainer of the AG’s office, from KUT’s Mike Lee: