Whether considering a law career, researching the best ways to add to law qualifications or currently facing a legal issue, it can be valuable to be familiar with all the terminology used in this field.
One of the most asked questions about legal processes in the US, is what is a state attorney and why are they crucial to social justice?
One of the reasons this can be an area of confusion is that the term ‘state attorney’ is not the only one used when referring to the role of upholding laws in specific areas of the US. There are also individuals with a similar judicial role referenced as a district attorney, which is commonly shortened to DA.
Fundamentally though, these are public officials who have been appointed to represent their state or district in criminal judicial proceedings. They are elected to this role and have a clear set of boundaries and tasks.
Their responsibilities extend to whatever state, district or county they were appointed to, and they act as the prosecution in their area, fundamentally seeking truth and justice on behalf of the community they represent.
For this reason, a state attorney may also be referred to as a public prosecutor or prosecuting attorney. These titles indicate and sum up their role in conducting criminal proceedings on behalf of their geographical jurisdiction.
State attorney v United States attorney
While a state attorney fulfills a prosecution role on a state basis, and district attorneys do the same for their county or multi-county area, there is a similar role within the federal law system in the United States. That is because there are uniquely federal crimes, and only the federal government is legally tasked with prosecuting them.
As a quick reminder for anyone unfamiliar with this concept, federal laws are those created by Congress. Also, the US attorney is a post created by the United States Constitution, and the office holder is nominated by the president and is then appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate.
The US attorney’s office — unlike the state prosecutor’s office — would represent the United States in federal cases which can involve them in litigation anywhere in the country. A state attorney has a far more limited jurisdiction.
What laws does a state attorney uphold?
While the US attorney’s office prosecutes on the basis of federal laws, their equivalent in states or districts focuses wholly on the laws relevant to their appointed area. Each state legislature creates its own laws, and the local prosecutor’s office is tasked with upholding and applying these.
What happens when federal and state laws overlap? These are the occasions when the US and state attorney’s offices will work together and will both pursue an interlinked case through judicial proceedings.
Do they get involved in active investigations?
There are fictional representations of this role that suggest that both US and state attorneys get involved in tracking down criminals and bringing them to justice. This is beyond the boundaries of this elected office.
Instead, prosecutors at this level rely on the work and investigations of federal and state law enforcement agencies.
So, for instance, a US Attorney would leave active investigations to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service or Customs and Border Protection.
Both the US attorney’s offices and state attorneys also work in partnership with state and local law enforcement agencies. These organizations can be vital in gathering evidence for both federal and state criminal cases.
The prosecutors in both federal and state roles can of course provide law enforcement agencies with legal direction and counsel though. This can help those agencies to prepare a case which meets the standards required to progress to criminal proceedings.
Also, both the US attorney’s offices and those in states and districts spend immeasurable amounts of time weighing up evidence and finding gaps and key points to use as part of prosecutions. They also interview witnesses and victims, to prepare their cases.
What area does a state attorney cover?
It is already clear that pinning down ‘what is a state attorney’ is not an exact science.
How prosecution services are organized in the US varies from state to state. Alongside state attorney offices tasked with upholding state laws, there could also be other posts such as district attorney, county attorney, and prosecuting attorney.
However, most states do have a state attorney general, who is responsible for prosecuting any substantial violations of the state’s criminal laws. District attorney offices may be tasked with less serious state crimes, such as those relating to auto crime, consumer protection, environmental protection and fraud, or embezzlement.
The scope of a state attorney’s office in geographical terms can also vary from state to state, just like the laws they uphold can be different from state to state.
The geographical jurisdiction of a state or district attorney is always an established and immovable boundary though. It can be decided by the borders of a particular county for example or may cover what is known as a judicial circuit, or judicial district.
One of the factors that dictate the job title used for these elected officials is the nature of the area they service. So, their title may reflect whether they serve one county, or a multi-county district, and whether their appointment is a state-wide one.
What else can dictate the terms of reference for a state or district attorney? Sometimes, the title they carry is as much about local historical traditions and precedents as it is about the modern-day geographical area they are responsible for.
Ultimately though, whether they are a state attorney, district attorney or carry some other similar title, their role and responsibilities are largely universal across the United States.
What do state attorneys do?
Mention has already been made of the fact that the primary responsibility of a state prosecutor — or district attorney or assistant district attorney, for instance — is to uphold the laws of the state or district they represent.
To carry out this role, they have a state attorney’s office or district attorney’s office. This is a team of prosecutors, that may be referred to as assistant district attorneys (or ADAs), deputy district attorneys (DDAs) — or in some state attorney’s offices as assistant state attorneys (ASAs).
There will also be administrative staff in many state and district attorney’s offices, to support the work of the prosecutors. The team of prosecutors within the state attorney’s management would each be assigned their own cases to prepare, and to oversee through the judicial process to completion.
Though each prosecutor handles their own workload, the state attorney or district attorney would provide them with guidance, direction and supervision, until each case was completed.
That is because the state attorney, or DA, is tasked with ensuring that their agency is meeting all of its mandates in an accountable manner, and they need to ensure the overall running of their office is efficient, effective and unquestionably honest and fair.
Just as with any other law enforcement organization, the state attorney is ultimately responsible for making sure that the established judicial standards, policies and procedures are adhered to. This includes fulfilling the legal and ethical obligation to keep data secure and private, in law firms. As well as making sure the entire organization maintains the correct balance of confidentiality and information sharing, relevant to US criminal proceedings.
When is a case handled by the state attorney or DA themselves, and not their team of prosecutors? As the lead in the prosecution office, they would take responsibility for especially important, complex or high-profile cases.
This job role could also involve other tasks and duties, beyond prosecuting criminal violations and offenses. For example, a state attorney’s office could be responsible for spreading good practice and information about crime prevention. Also, they could act in an advisory capacity, to give legal insights and guidance to state officials.
A state attorney may even be asked to help to revise or create legislation, or to provide training within the state legislature. They would certainly be asked to advise their local law enforcement agencies regularly, to oversee proper investigation procedures and to make sure offenders are charged with the correct offense under state law.
Can one train to be a state attorney?
This is a question often asked when someone is considering starting the process of qualifying as an online juris doctor. This can be done by registering with one of the few accredited online J.D. programs in the country, such as the one run by Cleveland State University. Studying online, one can progress to being a juris doctor which is a graduate-entry professional degree in law. By taking this degree at an institution such as Cleveland State University, one will learn core legal concepts, perform legal research and analysis, and hone problem-solving and professional competencies for ethical practice.
On this basis, one may then want to build their career in a way that results in their appointment as a state attorney. The salary is considered good, and there is a great deal of job satisfaction to be gained from representing a state, district and community in the law courts, and upholding justice for the people one serves.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the law, in general, is a fast-growing career sector. Between 2021 and 2031, it is estimated that there will be around 48,000 openings for lawyers every year. Some of these openings are as a result of lawyers moving into new career roles, including becoming a district attorney or state attorney.
First, one should get their bachelor’s degree in law and work towards a qualification of Doctor of Law (graduate-entry professional degree in law). It must be a degree program recognized by the American Bar Association. While studying, it can help future career prospects to gain relevant work experience, especially an internship in a state attorney’s office.
A law degree is not the only qualification needed to apply for a job in a state attorney’s office, however. An applicant would also need to take the bar exam in their specific state. ‘Passing the bar’ to practice law in one’s state is also essential to becoming a district attorney.
However, these qualifications are not the only things that are assessed when appointing staff to a state or district attorney’s office. There are personal attributes that are commonly associated with this role, including financial responsibility and honesty. One may also find their moral character and illnesses are considered, as a history of substance misuse or poor mental health can make such a high pressure and often emotionally challenging role unadvisable.
Some jurisdictions also demand that applicants to prosecution teams take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) or a judicial ethics exam. Moreover, the other preparation applicants would need to engage in is career experience relevant to a post in the state prosecution team. This could well include success as a defense lawyer in state cases.
Other insights on becoming a prosecutor
As a state or district attorney, one is likely to handle a heavy workload and get involved in what can be fulfilling but also emotionally and mentally challenging tasks.
There are certain attributes considered to be preferable for anyone considering a career as a prosecutor, representing their community in courts and working with law enforcement agencies. Especially as this role involves working alongside victims, witnesses, criminal investigators and relevant experts. Not to mention dealing with defense attorneys, juries, and judges.
One of the personal and professional skills required is good organizational and time management, as well as critical thinking and excellent problem solving. Prosecutors would need to work well and remain calm under pressure and have excellent levels of resilience and stamina.
It is not all about ‘performance’ in a courtroom but can entail many hours of refreshing one’s knowledge on legal concepts and precedents, and intensive research and analysis.
Prosecutors also carry the enormous responsibility of potentially sending someone into the prison system, changing their life and impacting their whole family, or possibly even seeking the death penalty. They may also have decisions to make about plea bargaining that balance upholding the law against what is practical and achievable in courtrooms.
Close attention to detail and a good memory can clearly be invaluable for this role. However, prosecutors also need a degree of empathy and sensitivity, as they will be working with people — including victims and witnesses — and not just cold, hard facts.
It all comes down to being committed to public service and being ready to invest considerable time and energy in prosecuting crimes on behalf of a community.
Electing state attorneys
Even after all this preparation to become a state attorney, their fate is not in their hands. Unlike similar roles in other judicial systems, state attorneys are elected. To get sufficient support for this appointment, one would therefore usually have an allegiance to a political party.
District or state attorneys run for office every four years. Someone already in the post would need to campaign and run for office alongside any new candidates. The timing of these elections will coincide with the election of a governor in that local area.
Why are state attorney’s so important?
As already outlined, a state (or district) attorney has responsibilities that are shaped by the state laws they vow to uphold, and they represent the state in criminal cases. This is an essential process within the nation’s judicial system, and their caseload can be considerable and weighty. It can extend to all manner of criminal cases, including grand jury indictments, conducting discovery, trials and progressing plea-bargaining arrangements.
There are various areas of criminal law that the state attorney may need to supervise. For example, a larger state or district attorney’s office could have departments specifically to deal with state traffic violations, juvenile crimes, domestic violence, drug prosecution, homicide, and organized crime.
Ensuring that all these areas of law are well supervised in a judicial area can be complex and demanding, but all criminal matters must be prosecuted fairly and properly. This could involve the state attorney providing an important advisory resource to local law enforcement agencies too, helping them to do their jobs efficiently and reliably.
Do state attorneys get involved in civil suits?
The answer to this question can vary from state to state, or judicial district to judicial district. However, in some places in the US, the state or district attorney has responsibilities that go beyond criminal prosecution.
This largely involves defending their county or judicial area against civil suits. Sometimes, they may even get involved in building civil suits on behalf of the judicial area they are responsible for. Alongside this, a state attorney may be involved in preparing or reviewing contracts that their county needs to draw up and may provide other legal advice and counsel to their local government.
Upholders of social justice
It is easy to see why state attorneys are so essential to the process of social justice in the US. From helping to shape state legislature, to upholding its existing laws, and helping law agencies to investigate and charge effectively, they play a vital role.
That is not always a responsibility that is measured in the courtroom either, as state attorneys can be found supervising the work of their offices, at local government offices, and spending hours in virtual law libraries researching, for example. This work is all to uphold the laws of a state or district, and seek truth and justice for the communities they represent.