Role of the State Attorney General

In 2000, James E. Tierney developed a seminar course at Columbia Law School on the Role of the State Attorney General.  Professor Tierney continues to teach variations of this seminar and is currently offering it at Harvard Law School with former Maine Solicitor General, Peter Brann.

The syllabus below is for Professor Tierney's Fall 2017 course at Harvard Law School, available now as PDF download. The web version will be available here soon.

The PDF of the 2017 Fall Syllabus (above) includes changes made during the course of the Fall semester. The weekly syllabus pages (right) are from Spring 2017. 

Syllabus — Fall 2017

The Role of the State Attorney General

Harvard Law School, Griswold Hall Room 110

Professor James E. Tierney
Lecturer-in-Law, Harvard Law School
Former Director of the National State Attorney General Program at Columbia Law School
Attorney General of Maine (1980 - 1990)

Professor Peter Brann
Lecturer in Law, Harvard Law School
Former Lecturer in Law, Columbia Law School
Solicitor General and Assistant Attorney General in Maine (1981 – 1999)

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 extraordinarily broad jurisdiction and to varying degrees is independent from the executive branch of state government. Attorneys General in 43 states 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 will cover the day–to–day challenges faced by Attorneys General and their staffs in delivering the high quality legal advice that will guide state government in a constitutional and ethical manner. The course will also cover the relationship of Attorneys General with the federal government, the private bar, and a myriad of advocacy organizations. It will focus on some of the most controversial legal issues affecting society today because Attorneys General operate at the intersection of law and public policy.

Although each State is unique, the course will demonstrate the remarkable congruence that exists among State Attorneys General when addressing similar challenges and issues. Unlike private and other government lawyers, who work subject to ethical rules that defer decision–making to agency “clients,” the 13,000 men and women who serve in Attorneys General offices represent the “public interest.”

The course is weighted toward those decisions by Attorneys General that reflect their independent status, which is most often revealed when legislatures, other elected officials, state agencies or the federal government exceed their constitutional or statutory authority. The course 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 which, because of their nature, have not been studied or, in most cases, ever made public. There is no text for the course and all materials have been collected from over 35 years of studying and participating in the decision making of Attorneys General and their staffs.

Students are evaluated based upon either a final take–home examination or a paper. Given the dearth of academic writing on State Attorneys General in particular, and on state issues in general, we encourage students in this class to consider writing a paper. As seen by the law review articles in the syllabus published in the Columbia Law Review and the Columbia Journal of Law & Social Problems by then–students of this course, this is a fertile ground for academic research. Additionally, students can improve their grades based upon class participation, and we strongly encourage each student 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, we aim to create an atmosphere in which both extroverts and introverts, and students of differing political perspectives, feel comfortable contributing diverse viewpoints to the class discussion.

In anticipation of the first class, we urge students to watch this video:

Teaching Schedule

In 2018, Professor Tierney is teaching at Harvard Law School.

In the Spring of 2019, he will teach a course on the role of attorneys general at Yale Law School.

NOTE: The weekly syllabus pages here are from Spring 2017. The course description and PDF (above) are from Fall 2017.