There is a joke that NAAG, the acronym for the National Association of Attorneys General, also stands for the “National Association of Aspiring Governors.” State attorneys general (“AGs”) have been perceived as politically ambitious and “upwardly” mobile, with the intent of using their position as a launch pad for “higher office.” Time and time again, they have been referred to as the “farm team” for other offices, and the assumption is that they come from positions in state legislatures.
However, these generalizations often are not the case and discount the substantive importance and powerful role of a state AG in the United States, along with the talents and varied backgrounds of the individuals seeking the office. While partisan gridlock in the U.S. Congress and extreme public pressure and scrutiny on governors may hamstring their effectiveness in governing, the state-wide office of AG is imbued with highly potent powers – ranging from legislative and advisory to investigations and litigation – that can escape some of the road blocks encountered in other offices. Indeed, it has been state AGs who have effectively led big policy and legal changes in diverse areas such as in the realm of privacy and data security, opioid addiction and treatment, pharmaceutical sales and marketing, tobacco and vaping promotions, mortgage and student lending, human trafficking and in other key areas of consumer protection across the United States.
As a result, the office of AG has become extremely attractive to those who want to get things done – increasingly drawing individuals who have served in so-called “higher” offices or from other diverse professional backgrounds. Notable office holders drawn to the office of AG include former California Governor Jerry Brown, who served twice as Governor, separated by a term as AG. Another is Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who previously served as AG, prior to which he served in the U.S. Senate.
At the same time, their track records while serving as AGs bear a close watch as they often are indicative of their priorities and positions after they leave office. Of particular note is the keen interest in privacy and consumer protection by US Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who honed this interest during his long service as the AG of Connecticut.
This post explores the roles of state AGs before and after they serve as their state’s “top cop” to give some context to this important role and the individuals who serve in it – and also to encourage those who are or who may be touched by the activities of a state AG to pay attention their actions and interests as they serve in the role.
Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States
Several former state AGs have gone on to serve as a justice of the United States Supreme Court. Most recently, Associate Justice David Souter, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by President George W. Bush, previously served as the 20th AG of New Hampshire. Previously, Associate Justice Nathan Clifford, who is one of the few people to have served in all three branches of the U.S. Federal government, was the AG of Maine before his nomination to the Supreme Court by President James Buchanan. Also, Chief Justice Roger Taney was the AG of Maryland long before he was appointed by President Andrew Jackson.
President of the United States
The resumes of two U.S. Presidents include the role of AG. Most recently, Bill Clinton, the 42nd President, began his political career as the AG of Arkansas. He later went on to serve two terms as the Governor of Arkansas before defeating President George H.W. Bush. Martin Van Buren, the 8th President, served as the AG of New York. He had previously served in local office and then as a member of the New York Senate. Van Buren was elected to serve as AG while he was still serving as a state Senator, and he held both positions simultaneously for several years. After his tenure as AG, Van Buren went on to serve as a U.S. Senator, the Governor of New York, the U.S. Secretary of State, a U.S. Minister to the United Kingdom, Vice President to President Andrew Jackson, and then, finally, President.
Vice President of the United States
Ten percent of all Vice Presidents previously served as a state AG. Martin Van Buren, noted above, served as Vice President before he became President. Other Vice Presidents who previously served as a state AG include: Aaron Burr (2nd AG of New York), George Dallas (17th AG of Pennsylvania), Walter Mondale (23rd AG of Minnesota), and now Kamala Harris (32nd AG of California), who may be the most prominent former AG to serve as Vice President to date. Vice President Harris served as a district attorney before she was elected as the California AG, where she made data privacy and security a key issue in California. After two terms, she went on to run for U.S. Senate, before becoming the Vice President of the United States.
Federal Agency Leadership Appointments
A number of former AGs have been appointed to serve in the federal government. Most recently, former California AG Xavier Becerra was appointed by President Joe Biden to lead the Department of Health and Human Services in 2021. Former Michigan AG and Governor Jennifer Granholm is now the Secretary of the Department of Energy. President Trump selected former Oklahoma AG Scott Pruitt to serve as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Other examples are former Idaho AG Larry Echo Hawk, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, as well as Gale Norton, former AG of Colorado and then US Secretary of Interior, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001.
U.S. Congress – House Representatives and Senators
It is not uncommon for state AGs to later run for U.S. Congress, and there are several instances of AGs going on to serve as House Representatives and Senators. Currently, there are 8 members of Congress who are former state AGs: Representative Charlie Crist (35th AG of Florida and also a prior Florida Governor) and Senators Richard Blumenthal (23rd AG of Connecticut), John Cornyn (49th AG of Texas), Catherine Cortez Masto (32nd AG of Nevada), Josh Hawley (42nd AG of Missouri), Dan Sullivan (27th AG of Alaska), and Sheldon Whitehouse (71st AG of Rhode Island). On the flip side, there are three state AGs who previously served in Congress: Indiana AG Todd Rokita, Louisiana AG Jeff Landry, and Minnesota AG Keith Ellison, and there likely will be three more starting in January 2023 – Congressman Raul Labrador of Idaho, Former Congressman (and current Lt. Governor) Tim Griffin of Arkansas and Congressman Anthony Brown of Maryland.
Governor and Lieutenant Governor
Of course, as the joke goes, many AGs do in fact go on to serve as the governor of their state – the sitting Governors of Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas each previously served as AG. The role of AG provides exposure to a statewide audience, and provides a bird’s eye view into nearly all the functions of state government. As a result, many state AGs are well-equipped to serve as governors of their states. Currently, the following sitting AGs are running to be the governor: Kansas AG Derek Schmidt; Daniel Cameron of Kentucky; and Massachusetts AG Maura Healey. Similarly, AG Leslie Rutledge is running to be the Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas.
All in all, the office of State AG is a powerful one that draws a diverse and dynamic group of people who often take hard-hitting positions on key issues in their – and our – days. Watchers of politics and law – or those who are subject to state policy and law enforcement by AGs would do well to monitor the activities and interests of AGs in their jurisdictions.
 Ryan Greenstein, NAAG, From Burr to Harris: AG to VP (Jan. 19, 2021), available at https://www.naag.org/attorney-general-journal/from-burr-to-harris-ag-to-vp/.