Attorneys general and their staffs are not exempt from the rules and codes that govern professional conduct for lawyers. Because attorneys general have varied responsibilities that are defined by their constitutions, statutes and the common law, it is often difficult to define the ethical duties of attorney general offices. This is especially true in light of their dual capacities as representatives of the public interest, while simultaneously defending various organs of state government. What are the ethical duties of a state attorney general when these roles conflict?
For over fifteen years, James E. Tierney has conducted approved continuing education sessions on ethics for state attorneys general and their staffs at annual meetings of the National Association of Attorneys General. He has also taught courses on state attorneys general ethics and responsibilities in his capacity as a Lecturer-in-Law at both Harvard and Columbia Law Schools and has made presentations before advocacy groups, businesses and private law firms.
StateAG.org continues the work of the National State Attorneys General Program by making available teaching materials on attorney general ethics. The materials presented on the National State Attorneys General Program’s archived website and StateAG.org are for educational purposes only and cannot substitute for specific state-approved CLE programs.
Ethics & the Attorney General
In March and June 2008, National State Attorneys General Program Director James E. Tierney conducted interactive ethics presentations at the Spring and Summer Meetings of the National Association of Attorneys General. Tierney’s presentations involve substantial discussion from attorneys general, senior assistant attorneys general and former attorneys general.
Proceeding from the observation that the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility were drafted to provide a comprehensive set of ethical rules for private sector lawyers, Tierney notes that the underlying theme of these private sector Rules – zealous advocacy for easily identified clients – has never been an easy fit for state attorneys general whose responsibilities exist under state constitutions, state and federal law and, in the majority of states, the common law. The sessions explore various ethical dilemmas faced daily by state attorneys general and their staffs. He also discusses how the private sector, in light of Sarbannes-Oxley, is grappling with parallel issues in the corporate world.
The Modern State Attorney General: Power, Influence, and Ethics
Stanford Center on the Legal Profession and Rock Center for Corporate Governance
Jan 19, 2016
A discussion of the legal and ethical issues raised in a series of articles in the New York Times by Eric Lipton on the close ties between attorneys general and industry interests. With Terry Goddard, former attorney general of Arizona and current Senior Counsel with Dentons’ Public Policy and Regulation Practice, and James Tierney, former attorney general of Maine and current Director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School, moderated by Stanford Law Professor Nora Engstrom.
Attorneys General: Lawyering for Whom?
Co-hosted by Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), the Columbia Society of Law and Ethics and the Columbia Law School Social Justice Initiatives.
April 9, 2015
Elected statewide in forty-three states, attorneys general are independent state constitutional officers vested with extraordinary prosecutorial discretion. The decisions of a single state attorney general often reverberate nationally and impact citizens across state lines.
As a consequence of their wide-ranging impact, state attorneys general have not been immune to the onslaught of special-interest lobbying. Media outlets, such as the New York Times, have called into question the independence of attorneys general in the face of concerted and sustained lobbying efforts by corporations and trial lawyers. Furthermore, in a post-Citizen United world, large campaign contributions from known and unknown donors have overwhelmed the election coffers of many state attorneys general, thus further eroding the perception of independence.
In light of these realities, what are the ethical duties and considerations for today's state attorneys general? Does the need of elected prosecutors to raise campaign funds affect their independence? Does the lobbbying of state attorneys general create undue influence? And are regulatory changes needed to ensure that state attorneys general continue to faithfully represent the communities they serve?
For additional resources on AG ethics, see the Ethics Resources section of the National State Attorneys General Program archive (AGP Archive):