The Main Thing People Think Texas' Attorney General Does (But Really Doesn't)

Mar 3, 2014

Texas' current Attorney General, Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, has his own memorable description for his job.

"My job description has been simplified over the past four years," Abbott said during a speech in April. "Because what I do is I go into the office, I sue the federal government and then I go home."

Abbott was purposely oversimplifying what his office does, but defending the state's laws is a key element.

"The attorney general is really the state’s attorney," says former State Solicitor General Julie Parsley. "He or she defends the state’s laws and constitution. They represent the state and its agencies, which is a very important thing to do. But there’s also … a myriad of things that they do by state law, too."

Parsley points to consumer protection as another top role of the AG's office. It's the Attorney General's job to watch out for things like price gouging during natural disasters and enforcing child support orders. The AG also has oversight of charitable institutions.

But there's one thing some people assume the office does that it doesn't.

"The Texas Attorney General is not a crime fighter," says Hugh Brady, director of the Legislative Lawyering Clinic at the UT School of Law.

Of course that hasn't stopped some AG candidates from playing up the role of crime fighter when running for office.

"Back in the 70’s, you would see some candidates running for AG who would be standing in a jail cell, and they’d slam the jail door and they’d say, 'I’m going to put criminals behind bars!'" Parsley says. "Putting criminals behind bars is not their primary job."

There are some exceptions. If a local district attorney is recused from a case, the AG's office will step in to take it over. Or if a local district attorney needs help prosecuting a case, again the AG's office is there to help out.

So what qualifies someone to perform all these duties?

"Well, of course, you have to be an attorney. And you have to live in Travis County, I believe … under the constitution," Parsley said.

But how you use your law degree is up to you. Abbott and his predecessor, current U.S. Senator John Cornyn, both sat on the Texas State Supreme Court before becoming Attorney General. Is that experience a necessity?

"Whether you have to do something like that, I don't think it's necessarily required. But I think it certainly has its benefits," Parsley says.

She thinks the benefit is having a deeper understanding of state law in general – but its experience none of the candidates vying to replace Abbott have.

Here's a quick cartoon explainer of the AG's office, from KUT's Mike Lee: