The attorney general, the state’s chief legal officer, is one of the six popularly elected executive officers provided for in the Georgia Constitution in addition to the governor and lieutenant governor. Elections for attorneys general are held at the same time as gubernatorial elections. Since 1843 the term of office for the attorney general has been four years, but there are no limits to the number of consecutive terms that a person can serve. From its colonial period (1754-76) to the year 2016, Georgia has had fifty-five attorneys general who have served terms as short as a few months to as long as twenty years. The current attorney general, Chris Carr, was appointed by Governor Nathan Deal in 2016 to replace Sam Olens, who left the office to assume the presidency at Kennesaw State University.
Qualifications and Terms
Of the six other elected constitutional executive officers, only the attorney general has duties that are specifically addressed in the state constitution. To serve as attorney general one must have been a U.S. citizen for ten years and a Georgia resident for the four years immediately preceding election or appointment. One must also be at least twenty-five years old upon assuming office. No person can serve as attorney general unless he or she has been an active member of the State Bar of Georgia for at least seven years.
The role of attorney general has been considered crucial from the outset. When Georgia became a royal colony in 1752, the office of attorney general was, along with the position of governor, deemed necessary to the colony’s effective administration and governance. King George II appointed William Clifton, a distinguished English lawyer, Georgia’s first attorney general in 1754. Clifton served in this position until 1764, and he was the first person officially authorized to practice law in Georgia.
From 1777 until 1868, when the Constitution of 1868 made the name “attorney general” the official title of the office, the position was variously designated as “attorney for the state” or “state’s attorney.” The attorney general was for many years appointed, first by the legislature and then by the governor. Georgia’s Constitution of 1877 made the office an elective position.
The Department of Law, with the attorney general as its head, was established by the General Assembly in 1931 to assist the attorney general in carrying out the extensive duties and responsibilities of the office. In 1943 the department was given full and exclusive authority and jurisdiction over all matters of law relating to the executive branch of state government, including its departments, offices, commissions, boards, and agencies, as well as their officers and staff. The Department of Law provided legal advice and assistance in the drafting of bills for the General Assembly until 1959, when the legislature created the Office of Legislative Counsel to assume that responsibility.
Duties and Responsibilities
As provided by the state constitution and general state law, the attorney general as head of the Department of Law is responsible for:
—acting as the legal advisor to the executive branch;
—giving opinions on questions of law upon requests of the governor and heads of executive departments (official opinions) and other state officials (unofficial opinions);
—representing the state in all capital felony cases (those involving the death penalty) before the Georgia Supreme Court;
—representing the state in all civil actions in any court;
—representing the state in all cases before the U.S. Supreme Court;
—prosecuting any state officer or other person or entity for violating any criminal statute while dealing with or for the state;
—conducting investigations into the affairs of the state;
—any state departments, authorities, or other agencies;
—any person or entity dealing with the state;
—participating, when required by the governor, in all criminal or civil actions in which the state is a party;
—preparing all contracts and legal writings in which the state is interested;
—representing all state authorities.
Official opinions of the attorney general are binding upon the heads of executive departments who request them, but they are not binding upon any court. Unofficial opinions are completely advisory and issued only for informational purposes.
Organization of Department of Law
In addition to calling upon the permanent full- and part-time attorneys at the Department of Law, the attorney general can employ private counsel, who serve as special assistant attorneys general, to perform legal services. To efficiently carry out its responsibilities, the department is organized according to its functional responsibilities.
The number two position in the department is chief deputy attorney general. Below the chief deputy attorney general is the Special Prosecutions Unit, which handles the prosecution of organized criminal activities, corruption of public officials, and other matters as directed by the governor; it is supervised by a deputy attorney general. In addition, deputy attorneys general supervise the department’s five legal divisions: Regulated Industries and Professions, Commercial Transactions and Litigation, Criminal Justice, General Litigation, and Government Services and Employment.
Each of the five divisions is further subdivided according to its responsibilities into two to four sections, each supervised by senior assistant attorneys general. There is also an operations division responsible for the computer and human services needs as well as financial operations of the department and the State Law Library.
The attorney general is involved in an extremely diverse and large number of legal activities every year as chief legal counsel for the state. In recent years, for example, the attorney general has represented the state in:
—a challenge to Georgia’s congressional redistricting plan based on the argument that race should not be a factor in determining the validity of a reapportionment plan;
—a challenge to the constitutionality of a state law that placed a higher excise tax on alcoholic beverages imported from other states than those produced in Georgia;
—a boundary dispute with South Carolina;
—an allegation against the Department of Transportation for breach of contract;
—child custody and parental rights cases;
—a personal injury lawsuit against the Georgia Building Authority by a pedestrian injured in a parking garage owned by the authority;
—challenges to the condemnation of private land by the Department of Transportation and other state agencies.