What’s an AG?

The Attorney General is the “People’s Lawyer.”  The Michigan Constitution, Art. V, provides that the people directly elect the Attorney General.  Under Michigan law, the AG exists to defend “the public interest.”  Courts define the AG as the “guardian of the people.”  And so rather than serving the person who appointed him or her to office, the Attorney General serves the people.  The AG is not the Republicans’ lawyer; not the Democrats’ lawyer; not even the Governor’s lawyer, in the first instance.  The Attorney General is the People’s Lawyer.

The office of Attorney General was born in England and sailed across the Atlantic even before there was a “United States.”  In the early years, the Attorney General was the “King’s Lawyer,” representing royal interests across the British Isles.  But as power moved from Crown to crowd, the Attorney General became the voice not of royal interests but of the public interest.

As one state’s court described this shift:

It is true that at common law the duty of the Attorney General was to represent the King, he being the embodiment of the state. But under the democratic form of government now prevailing the people are the King, so the Attorney General’s duties are to that sovereign rather than to the machinery of government.   

Because the Attorney General is the “People’s Lawyer,” his or her job is to stand up for us—ordinary people—and especially for those who don’t have a voice.  In one of the most well-known American cases describing the office of state Attorney General, a federal court wrote:

The Attorney-General is the attorney and legal guardian of the people . . . . [I]t is his duty to use means most effectual to the enforcement of the laws, and the protection of the people… The office of the Attorney-General is a public trust.  It is a legal presumption that he will do his duty, that he will act with strict impartiality.

As our advocate, the AG’s mission is to make Michigan safe:

  • Safe at home
  • Safe on the streets
  • Safe at school and safe on the internet
  • Safe in the marketplace and safe on the job
  • Safe from corporations that profit from harm
  • Safe from corrupt political interests and the abuse of political power
  • And that that our Great Lakes and our great forests—the air we breathe—are safe as well.

The laws of our state give the AG not only the power, but the responsibility to carry out this mission.  The powers and responsibilities of the Michigan Attorney General are defined by the Michigan Constitution, state statutes, and the common law (that body of rules, accumulated over years by judicial decision, that helps define the office).

The Attorney General does not exist by the will of the legislature or serve at the pleasure of the Governor.  We, the People of Michigan, created the office in our Constitution.  The AG isempowered to intervene in any court proceeding “whenever such intervention is necessary in order to protect any right or interest of the state, or of the people of the state.”  Early in the history of our state, the Michigan Supreme Court recognized, “A broad discretion is vested in this officer in determining what matters may, or may not, be of interest to the people generally.  We must recognize the fact that the office of Attorney General is ancient in its origin and history, and it is generally held by the states of the Union that the Attorney General has a wide range of powers at common law.”

The breadth of these powers in AG offices across the United States is shaped, to a significant degree, by the legacy of General Frank Kelley, Michigan’s Attorney General from 1961 to 1988.  General Kelley was the first to create a consumer protection and an environmental protection unit in a state AG’s office.  In addition to handling the state’s litigation, the AG’s work today includes:

  • Keeping citizens safe from crime
  • Ensuring charities follow their mission
  • Protecting consumers in the marketplace from corporate abuse
  • Stopping companies that adopt anti-competitive measures
  • Upholding public access to government information
  • Interpreting state law through formal and letter opinions
  • Prosecuting corrupt government officials
  • Protecting the environment – our forests, streams, and Great Lakes
  • Prosecuting fraudsters who steal from state programs, like Medicaid