The U.S. Attorney General: History, Role & Purpose

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  • 0:01 History of the Office
  • 1:48 Duties of the Office
  • 2:58 Famous Cases
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

The United States attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer of the federal government and the head of the Department of Justice. This lesson discusses the history, role and purpose of the U.S. attorney general.

History of the Office

What do Robert F. Kennedy, Janet Reno and Alberto Gonzalez have in common? These people have held the office of United States Attorney General. The United States Attorney General is the head of the Department of Justice and the chief law enforcement officer of the federal government. The position is part of the President's Cabinet, which includes the Vice President and the President's 15 other most important advisors.

The office of the Attorney General is historical. The Attorney General is an original part of our federal government. It's modeled after the British Attorney General and was created during the first meeting of Congress, by the Judiciary Act of 1789. This Act organized the administration of the judicial branch of the nation's new government. Remember that the judicial branch includes the United States Supreme Court and all other federal courts. The Attorney General, however, is part of the executive branch along with the President and the rest of the President's Cabinet.

The President appoints the Attorney General. This means the Attorney General is nominated by the President and then confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Also note that there's no set time period on the Attorney General's term. The President can remove the Attorney General from office at any time, which is why the office usually changes when the presidency changes. As of 2014, our U.S. Attorney General is Eric Holder. He serves as our 81st Attorney General.

Duties of the Office

Now, let's take a look at the role and purpose of the U.S. Attorney General. The Attorney General's main purpose is to supervise the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice includes many important federal law enforcement agencies, such as:

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI
  • The Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA
  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF
  • The Bureau of Prisons
  • The Office of Justice Programs
  • The U.S. Attorneys
  • The U.S. Marshals Service

As the chief law enforcement officer of the federal government, the Attorney General serves many vital roles. The Attorney General:

  • Represents the United States in court cases and legal matters
  • Gives legal advice to the President and the Cabinet
  • Appears before the Supreme Court in important legal matters involving the nation or federal government

Famous Cases

Because the U.S. Attorney General has so many different roles, the office has been involved in some interesting cases and issues. For example, then Attorney General Janet Reno authorized the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas. More than 70 ATF agents raided the compound in order to serve arrest and search warrants based on the illegal possession of firearms and explosives. However, a gun battle ensued, resulting in the death of four agents and six Davidian members.

The ATF didn't get inside the compound that day. After a 51-day standoff, Reno authorized the FBI to launch a tear gas attack on the compound, and the compound caught on fire. Authorities still don't know definitively if the Davidians set the fire or if the tear gas somehow caused a fire. Instead of surrendering, about 80 Davidians died in the fire, including almost 30 children.

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