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Casebook Credits History Find
The Role of the State Attorney General-Harvard Law School-Spring. 2022
First published Jan 2022 and updated Feb 2023

Peter J. Brann
Lecturer in Law, Harvard Law School
Former Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School
Former Lecturer in Law, Columbia Law School
State Solicitor and Assistant Attorney General in Maine (1981 – 1999)
James E. Tierney
Lecturer in Law, Harvard Law School
Former Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School
Former Director of the National State Attorney General Program at Columbia Law School
Attorney General of Maine (1980 – 1990)

Note: Syllabus is subject to change depending on developing issues and the schedules of visiting speakers


The roots of the Office of State Attorney General run deep in American jurisprudence. All 13 American colonies had an Attorney General and today all 50 States and the District of Columbia have opted to provide legal services through an Office of State Attorney General.

Each office possesses broad jurisdiction and to varying degrees is independent from the executive and the legislative branch of state government. Attorneys general in 43 states and the District of Columbia are elected statewide on a partisan basis. The combination of sweeping jurisdiction and constitutional independence has given rise to a unique American legal institution of growing importance.

The course covers the day-to-day challenges faced by attorneys general and their staffs in delivering the legal advice that will guide state government in a constitutional and ethical manner. The course also covers the relationship of attorneys general with Governors, state legislatures and agencies, the federal government, the private bar, and a myriad of advocacy organizations. It focuses both day to day responsibilities as well as on some of the most controversial legal issues affecting society today. Although attorneys general are often in the news litigating both in favor and in opposition to Presidential policies, the focus of this Syllabus is not on suing or defending a President.

Although each state is unique, the course demonstrates the remarkable congruence that exists among state attorneys general when addressing similar challenges and issues. The course is weighted toward those decisions by attorneys general that reflect their independent status, which is most often revealed when attorneys general assert that Governors, legislatures, other elected officials, state agencies or the federal government exceed their constitutional or statutory authority. The course also considers also the unique ethics issues that attorneys general and their staff must confront.

This Syllabus contains federal and state statutes and case law, law review and descriptive articles from a variety of sources, and hypotheticals that describe the nature and function of the Office of State Attorney General. The numerous hypotheticals are drawn from actual cases that, because of their nature, have not been studied or, in most cases, ever made public. All materials have been collected from over 40 years of studying and participating in the decision making of attorneys general and their staffs.

There are numerous ways to evaluate the performance of students. In this class students are evaluated based upon either a final take-home examination or, if approved by the instructors, a paper. Given the dearth of academic writing on state attorneys general in particular, and on state issues in general, students are encouraged to consider writing a paper as attorneys general present fertile ground for academic research. Readings that are marked “supplemental reading" are optional resources that to enable students to take a deeper dive into that week’s topic. For a list of courses at a sampling of law schools, see:

All students are expected to participate in some fashion each week in class. Because many, if not most, of the decisions of attorneys general and their staff are based upon judgment, and thus are not obviously right nor wrong, the class will create an atmosphere so that students of differing political perspectives will feel comfortable contributing diverse viewpoints to the class discussion. Class participation can be taken into grading decisions.

In anticipation of the first Harvard class, all students are required to watch this video ( A Brief Introduction to the World of State Attorneys General